Trying To Make Sense Of Pakistan

Our despair is a result of our lack of a sense of history. You have to understand that we have arrived where we are as a nation as a result of specific historical choices, and understanding the reasons for those choices can help us make the future. It is absolutely crucial to retain this sense of history, and to see Pakistan and Pakistanis as agents of their own history.

Ayesha Jalal speaking at the Lahore Literary Festival, Lahore 2013


Pakistan is pulsating with social and political movements that have no direct electoral vehicle – farmers, factory workers and fisherfolk do not sit idle, waiting to be recruited into the Taliban or into the military. Activists such as Baba Jan Hunzai from Gilgit sit in jail because they threaten the consensus, while the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (led by Mohammad Ali Shah) continues its protests over access to the Puran Dhoro waterway in southern Sindh. Akbar Ali Kamboh, Babar Shafiq Randhawa, Fazal Elahi, Rana Riaz Ahmed Muhammad Aslam Malik and Asghar Ali Ansari languish in jail for their roles in the Faisalabad power-loom workers strike of 2010, while women in Larkana went after officials at the Benazir Income Support Program for their condescension and corruption. None of these people venture into Rashid’s book. This is why the book is suffocating, why Pakistan seems in a hopeless situation. Rashid seems to have lost his faith in the capacity of the Pakistani people to effect change through their struggles.

Vijay Prashad, from a review of Ahmed Rashid’s Pakistan On The Brink

The way in which…the liberal obsession with the ‘Taliban’ feeds into the military’s project of a neoliberal security state is reflected in the proliferation of ‘security talk’, that is, the tendency to couch the very real grievances and issues of the Pakistani people in the language of security, and specifically in terms of combating ‘Islamist militancy’…Needless to say, this equation between deprivation and religious extremism/militancy dehumanizes the poorest and the most vulnerable….

What the liberal discourse reveals is a profound dissociation from – and even a distaste for – ordinary Pakistanis and their lives, hopes, dreams and struggles, reflecting in the abandonment of mass political work…

Saadia Toor , The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics In Pakistan Pluto Press, 2011

It is difficult for me to talk in public about my personal projects. This is not because they are unduly complicated but because I fear to honestly speak about them and reveal the doubts, uncertainties and many prayers for luck and chance that underpin them. More often than not I do not know what it is that I am exploring, but only that I hope to find something that will educate me, inform me, and in some way, change me. I have questions I begin with, but no clear path to anything that may resemble an answer. These long term works, whether in India and now in Pakistan, are not based on any concrete hypothesis, or agenda, or righteous certainty but are little more than the one man’s rummaging through society, its inhabitants and asking some questions to learn a few things.

Unfortunately, that is not how a photographer is supposed to speak. Details »

Photojournalism, Advocacy And Eurocentrism – Part 5: The Burden Of Proof And An Inconclusive Conclusion

Please read my introduction post Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism: An Introduction before continuing reading the post here.

Part 1 of this 5-part series is here: Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism – Part 1: There Is No Other But Us

Part 2 of this 5-part series if here: Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism – Part 2: Angel of Mercy, Have Mercy!

Part 3 of this 5-part series if here: Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism – Part 3: A World Very Small.

Part 4 of this 5-part series if here: Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism – Part 3: Witness To The World.

The Burden Of Proof

I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated

James Nachtwey, a Time Magazine contract photographer for the last 29 years.


We’ve made the mistake of resenting business people. Government response to HIV has been nothing less than shameful, genocidal in some countries. The business community has stepped in, providing research, providing retroviral drugs because they can see that if they don’t do something their labour force is history. They’re making a practical business decision which has lead to an improved understanding of humanistic values. I want to work with that community, so I’ve been working with the Global Business Coalition, an organisation that includes the 400 most powerful companies in the world. I also work with government think tanks.

Brent Stirton, interview with the British Journal of Photography, 7 September 2008

Photojournalism has always claimed for itself a humanitarian and socially concerned imperative. Photojournalism is perhaps one of the few endeavors that is always being asked to justify itself and its practitioners are constantly in the search of, or claiming, motivations and intentions that go beyond the creation of the practice’s artifacts: photographs, recorded / written / oral testimonies, and/or individual experiences. That is, photojournalists are expected to explain the human, social and political value of their work if they are to be taken seriously as ‘photojournalists’. Many speak like prophets while doggedly remaining employed by corporate media, and as a result, locked into the assumptions and priorities of a corporate, neoliberal world order. It can not only seriously distort their reading of history, but trap them in ways of thinking that seem very appropriate from the comfortable confines of the corporate boardroom. This pressure to ‘justify’ comes at the silencing of the personal and the human with a rare photojournalism arguing that her work is simply a pursuit of the creative, a need to satisfy a personal curiosity, a desire to express a point of view, or even just the desire to be published. The photojournalist, or concerned photographer, must almost always speak in moral and humanitarian voice, always be ‘in the service of the other’ – giving voice to the voiceless, a witness, a spokesperson against human suffering – a prophet. Details »

Photojournalism, Advocacy And Eurocentrism – Part 4: Witness To The World

Please read my introduction post Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism: An Introduction before continuing reading the post here.

Part 1 of this 5-part series is here: Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism – Part 1: There Is No Other But Us

Part 2 of this 5-part series if here: Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism – Part 2: Angel of Mercy, Have Mercy!

Part 3 of this 5-part series if here: Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism – Part 3: A World Very Small.

Witness To The World

We should admit…that power produces knowledge (and simply by encouraging it because it serves or by applying it because it is useful); that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitution at the same time power relations. These ‘power-knowledge relations are to be analyzed, there, not on the basis of a subject of knowledge who is or is not free in relations to the power system, but, on the contrary, the subject who knows, the objects to be known and the modalities of knowledge must be regarded as so many efforts of these fundamental implications of power-knowledge and their historical transformations. In short, it is not the activity of the subject of knowledge that produces a corpus of knowledge, useful or resistant to power, but power-knowledge, the processes and struggles that traverse it and which it is made up, that determines the forms and possible domains of knowledge.

Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish, Page 28


It is a myth that refuses to die – the photojournalist as individual hero. The myth is renewed repeatedly each year in dozens of books, newspaper and magazine articles, exhibitions, and public statements by members of the photojournalism community including the photojournalists themselves – individual photographers spend consider effort on projecting an image of themselves as the last heroes of our times. We love our heroes and it has always perplexed me why this myth is so essential to the West for it does not exist in the same intensity elsewhere. The idea of the ‘witness to suffering’ clearly has a pedigree in Europe’s civilizing mission and sense of moral responsibility towards the world’s lesser people. So much of what still passes for photojournalist work retains within it the ethics and ethos of the white man’s burden. The photojournalist – the moral voice, the visual outrage, the photographic conscience as embodied in the public rhetoric of the near-saint-like James Nachtwey or Time Hetherington, is quite a sight to behold. And the photographer’s own sense of their righteous mission, and the allure of their swagger is in itself quite interesting. This was captured beautifully in a statement that founder Karim Ben Khelifa made, arguing that photojournalists had a certain allure, and that:

We have a romanticism around our profession. We realized that our work isn’t the end product, but how we got to it. This is what we expect to monetize.

The photojournalist as the individual hero – the myth underpins most all articles and exhibitions that feature photojournalism and war photography. Details »

Oh Dear…Did I Just Shoot Myself In The Foot? Or The Chicago Sun-Times Arrives Where We Argued It Would

For the last few years some of the most influential voices in photojournalism have spent their time making a strong argument for the revolutionary possibilities of phone photography, and iPhone™ photography in particular. Some have referred to it as an entirely new way of experiencing the world, others have spoken about it as a new form a photography – quantum photography, and other ‘famous’ photographers have criticized those who have been arguing against the trend of using such software as Instagram™ and Hipstamatic™ – tools available for phone photography.  And others who repeatedly argued that today … everyone is a photographer.

On the other side, magazines and editors have repeated featured and celebrated the increasing use of the iPhone™ to produce serious photojournalism works. Some have called for us to accept an entirely new economics of the iPhone based photography approach. There was all the excitement about the use of an iPhone™ image on the cover of Time Magazine going so far as to argue:

If there was still any debate about whether serious photojournalism can take place in the context of camera phones and cutesy retro filters, it’s over now.

There were repeatedly publications of the work of the photojournalist Ben Lowy (see two examples here, and here ), and the work of Michael Christopher-Brown’s iPhone™ images even making into the haloed pages of National Geographic magazine – that holy grail of anyone pursuing serious photography and photojournalism. And the front page of the New York Times.

So it was with some surprise that the decision by the Chicago Sun-Times to fire its entire photography deparment and train their writers to use of devices like the iPhone to produce visual content for the newspaper. was met with anger, and confusion. Details »

A Short Interruption To Bring You This Party Political Broadcast Or The New York Times Lens Blog Flashes The Unsuspecting With Its Neo-Orientalism

Kiana Hayeri_s Photos of Young Iranian Immigrants - NYTimes.com_20130531-193647

[This post was edited to correct a mistake in references)

It was quite simply, but provocatively titled, Leaving Tehran And Restraints Behind and very, very simplistically – in fact I would argue, cartoonishly constructed and photographed. The entire story is produced at a level that I would expect from a high school photography class student, and the entire framework that it uses one I would expect from a member of a neo-conservative think tank what with her intellectual capacity of a high school metal shop attendant.

Bad Iran. Innocent Girl. Sadness. Desperation. Dreams of Western Freedom. The Departure. The Arrival Into The Free World. The Emancipation. The Freedom. The Happiness. Done. Details »

Photojournalism, Advocacy And Eurocentrism – Part 3: A World Very Small

Please read my introduction post Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism: An Introduction before continuing reading the post here.

Part 1 of this 5-part series is here: Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism – Part 1: There Is No Other But Us

Part 2 of this 5-part series if here: Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism – Part 2: Angel of Mercy, Have Mercy!

A World Really Small

I’m generally in favor of interesting people in important subjects that they wouldn’t otherwise hear about (which this does), but I am strongly against simplifying things for advocacy purposes (coltan in electronics is only an issue in other countries because it is outsiders connection to the conflict – there are many other things that people fight over – land, cows, petrol, fishing rights, for example – that have nothing to do with the world market and so advocacy groups don’t focus on them)

Ben Rawlence, author of Radio Congo:Signals of Hope In Africa’s Deadliest War, in a personal email exchange

The previous post focused on the role of the NGO in the communities they work in and this should be better understood. This post focuses on the factors that can limit the world view of an NGO that if thoughtlessly adopted by the photographer can seriously imepede meaningful acts of advocacy and change.

The world as seen from the gated, guarded and high-security compound of an international aid organization is a very small one. The view from within it is prioritized around the issues, objectives and goals of the aid organization itself, and that these, more likely than not, are quite far removed from the social, political, cultural and economic complexities that inform conflicts or catastrophes like famine, pestilence or disease. In fact, one could argue that an unthinking reliance on the NGO or aid organization can limit a photographer’s understanding not only about the reality of the issue she is covering, but also about how best to go about advocating for change. Details »

Photojournalism, Advocacy And Eurocentrism – Part 2: Angel Of Mercy, Have Mercy!

Please read my introduction post Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism: An Introduction before continuing reading the post here.

Part 1 of this 5-part series is here: Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism – Part 1: There Is No Other But Us

Angel Of Mercy, Have Mercy!

[I am]…against portraying aid agencies as unmitigated agents of good. They play a complicated role: sometimes important but we shouldn’t set them up as stock characters who are ‘goodies’

Ben Rawlence, author of Radio Congo: Signals of Hope In Africa’s Deadliest War, in a personal email exchange discussing the video game Zero Hour: Congo. 21/04/2013


Aid is a very emotional thing and it’s very difficult to be rational if you are confronted with those pictures of starving children. There’s always this micro picture of this one human life saved, but there’s also a macro picture that we don’t often get presented about damage that aid can do and about the political and military agendas behind aid operations and behind donors. Aid is not necessarily choosing the weakest and the poorest on this earth. Most of the time it is sort of an our own agendas, and I believe it is the duty of journalists to expose that and to make it known to the public.

Linda Polman, in a radio interview with Marco Werman, October 2011

There is a strange modern phenomenon where advocates of new technology innovations often continue to rely on some very old fashioned models of thought. This can be clearly seen in these discussions about the video game Zero Hour: Congo – it is positioned as a cutting edge and innovative attempt at advocacy, and yet retains within in some rather conventional, populist ideas about how the world works.

Humanitarian and aid organizations have come under some severe scrutiny recently. This fact seems to have escaped many photojournalists who continue to speak about and represent such organizations in the most naive, and un-informed way. The scrutiny of the operations, behavior and influence of the massive industry called international humanitarian aid is absolutely crucial, and people are slowly beginning to bring a much needed critical eye to these organizations. There is no doubt that the sheer financial scale and political influence of humanitarian organizations makes is critical for us to understand and scrutinize how they drive policy, affect society and determine popular public perception about their works and about the regions they operate in. The recent criticism and push-back against Amnesty International’s campaign in support of the NATO occupation of Afghanistan was an example of how the inner workings of the organization were bought to the public and the closer relationship of its current leadership to the American political establishment was revealed. It was a clear reminder that journalists can’t just get into bed with aid and humanitarian organizations, but must act as watchdogs against their practices and prejudices. Details »

The Waltz Or The New York Times Lens Blog Offers The Israeli Government A Dance

Israeli Report Casting New Doubts on Shooting in Gaza - NYTimes.com_20130520-172359

It is a rather strange piece of reporting. It is also a rather strange story to have run on what is The New York Times’ photography blog, Lens. I am seriously confused as to what the editors of both the newspaper, and this blog, were thinking they were doing when they ran this piece.

Details »

Searching For Love In All The Wrong Places Or Time Magazine Goes In Search Of Muslim Ghosts

What Tsarnaev Saw_Dagestan by Dmitry Kostyukov - LightBox_20130520-151914

We love our demons.

If we can’t find them, we will invent them.

Time Magazine, now pretty much a mouth piece for not just American exceptional-ism, idealism, innocence and purity, but for the ignorance, bigotry, myopia and fear-mongering that fuels and justifies so much that passes for politics and diplomacy in the United States today, has once again produced a rather strange piece of photo-reportage.

With no sense of irony, or self-awareness, the editors at the magazine dispatched their writer and a photographer to go explore the troubled, brutalized, suppressed and oppressed regions of the Russian Caucasus, all in the hope that

…to learn what, if anything, the region’s Islamists had to do with Tsarnaev’s [one of the bomber’s] radicalization.

This would be quite fascinating if it wasn’t for the fact that Tsarnaev himself actually told us the answer. Details »

Against Whispering

Simon Norfolk.

I was so confident that I had written about his work on this blog that I even suggested to some of the students working with me on my Justice In Pakistan project to do a search on this, The Spinning Head, blog and take a look at his work. When they came back a few days later and pointed out that their search yielded no results I was surprised, and embarrassed. It was inconceivable that I have never discussed Norfolk’s work in all the years that I have been writing this blog. It was later that I realized that I had planned on writing about him, in particular his recent work in Afghanistan, and had decided to wait until after I had reviewed his latest project. And then I never got around to it. I want to fix this terribly oversight and write about his work now.

About two years ago I received an email from Simon that said:

I’m a big fan of your blog and in particular your thoughts about embedding in Afghanistan. Which was why I went and embedded in Afghanistan! I’d like to show you the results, it’s following in the footsteps of John Burke, a photographer who was there in 1880; can I mail you a copy of my book? Can you send me an address? I’d love to hear your thoughts, good or bad.

Details »