Scratching At My Skin


“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.

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My Masculinity Problem


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.

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Death Of A Native Son

On the night of October 15, 1987, in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city of Ouagadougo, a group of soldiers arrive by truck, and begin frantically digging in the earth. Their bodies attack the hard ground with shovels, as other men stand at a distance giving them orders in low voices. Hidden by the darkness of a moonless and starless night, the soldiers fight with the ground and against the fear that fills their hearts. There are twelve corpses carelessly tossed in the back of the truck. Some of the bodies are still in their military fatigues, while others are near naked and show signs of beatings. All are riddled with bullets. A couple of soldiers stand at guard near the truck, smoking cigarettes, kicking at the dirt and anxiously waiting for this night to be over. As far as they know, they are alone in this forsaken spot. But they are wrong. Despite the lateness of the hour, the darkness of the night and the desolation of the location, there are eyes that watch them, for in the shanty town that lies on the edges of the cemetery, the people listen, watch and wait.

The corpses are dragged out from the back of the truck, and one by one, thrown into the freshly dug grave. Orders are shouted and the soldiers get

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An Incomplete Triumph

“Don’t shoot, you cannot kill ideas!”
Surrendering Cuban revolutionary, after the failed attack against the Moncada garrison.

Within hours of Thomas Sankara’s assassination, the French government sent messages of congratulations to the coup leadership. But the job was not as yet done. Sankara’s family is harassed, their homes raided and personal belongings removed. His papers and documents disappear from all state archives and government offices. State television and radio stations were ordered to change programming and begin to dragging his name through mud, broadcasting stories about his corruption, and spreading rumors of his siphoning of money from the state exchequer. His social and public works programs are immediately halted. His companions and colleagues are jailed if not killed. His personal history and political ideas are re-written and re-cast, as history itself is employed to remove his presence from the minds and consciousness of the country’s people. Soon, all official evidence of Thomas Sankara, his political imagination, and his social programs are removed. The people who attempt to resist this erasure, they too are silenced: media is repressed, journalists are fired or killed, public discussions and political gatherings outlawed, student groups broken up, activists jailed and in some instances, killed outright. Details »

Who Makes History?


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.


Why Africa?

The Samadine neighbourhood in Ouagadougo. Mural of Thomas Sankara, a man who remains an inspiration for the people of the country.

The Samadine neighbourhood in Ouagadougo. Mural of Thomas Sankara, a man who remains an inspiration for the people of the country.

“Vico’s The New Science is everywhere a reminder that scholars hide, overlook or mistreat the gross physical evidence of human activity, including their own.”

Edward Said, “Reflections On Exile”, page 86

“…In the progress of nations, negroes have shown less capacity for self-government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary whenever they have been left to their own devices they have shown an instant tendency to lapse into barbarism.”

President Andrew Johnson, from Amy Kaplan’s “The Anarchy of Empire In The Making Of U.S. Culture”, page 83

In the course of the coming weeks, I will post work from two projects I began work on in 2015; The first in Rwanda, and the other in Burkina Faso. Each project engages with the people, history and politics of a region I have long felt has been choked under our wish to ‘represent’ or ‘give voice to’. These projects do neither – they do not represent Africa or Africans, and nor do they give ‘voice’ to them. What they do is engage with modern African politics, history and society, and see them as the result of ordinary human beings dealing with the same challenges and coping with the same prejudices as those in other states. They shun the exotic, and the colonial classic ideas and images of Africa we continue to see today. They avoid reducing complex social and political realities to cultural and genetic essences. They reject judgements of  ‘backwardness’, or ‘barbarism’ or ‘moral inhumanity’ as something innate, but instead look at the historical and economic roots of a place, a people and a politics. They refuse the  decades of colonial visual cliches and social prejudices that have come down to us over the years, and that continue to influence so much of visual work done in and about the African continent. Even some of the most ‘enlightened’ attempts to cut past the reductive and inhumane ideas about the people of the continent, still stay mired in efforts to change ‘representations’, as if to undo what has been done to the continent is simply a new public relations campaign. What is required, and what is reflected here in these new works, is a quiet but serious engagement with the continents modern political and social history, and an acknowledgement of the economic and cultural chains it remains trapped in. It is from this material base that we can begin to hear and see the continent for its lived reality, and possibly understand a way to work in it.

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Helping Us Absorb The Shock Of Reality

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Raymond Williams work ‘Keywords’ is perhaps one of the great pioneering cultural studies text of our lifetime. There are not many works that can claim that. In it, Williams pointed out that the meaning and use of words is deeply influenced by and changes with our political, social and economic situations and needs. As Williams himself argued in the book:

“…[T]he air of massive impersonality which the Oxford Dictionary communicates is not so impersonal, so purely scholarly, or so free of active social and political values as might be supposed from its occasional use.”

Words matter. And how, when and who uses them matters profoundly. When it is a word used by Western media, one deeply implicated in upholding corporate, political and military interests, we should always keep Williams insight in mind. Hence, it is irresponsible, if not disingenuous, of any writing by a media critic or commentator when writing about the American / Western media (broadcast, print, digital, radio) to not acknowledge the existence of this political and corporate influence, and the ways in which it influences so much of what is shown and spoken about. It is also disingenuous not to acknowledged that using and manipulating the media today is a crucial goal of any political administration anywhere in the world. The reach and access of media is greater today than ever before, and its influence on opinions and ideas second only to the Church. Perhaps more so, but I do not wish to blaspheme. Hence, I am repeatedly dismayed at the persistent and consistent eraser by media critics and analysts of American and European journalism’s close relationship to political and corporate power. (Le Monde Diplomatique is an exception, reporting repeatedly on this close collaboration when it comes to French media.) So much has been written about this to be self-evident, but it is intentionally pushed aside in discussions about how news get produced, published, disseminated and discussed. From corporate and private ownership of major newspapers, to political influence and collusion with journalists and editors, we know well today how closely our media has become a propaganda machine.

So when I came across this essay titled “Should News Outlets Show Photographs of Terrorists?” by Fred Ritchen – a former photo editor at The New York Times and now a teacher at the International Center for Photography in New York, I was left confused by many of its positions. Details »

A Rainbow Prohibition

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It is striking how in this entire piece about a lack of diversity in mainstream Western / European photojournalism, the idea ‘lack of representation’ is defined only as ethnic, nationalist, or gender. What is completely left out is politics. That is, the idea of a diversity of political views and perspectives that face, criticize, and dissent against the mainstream European / Western mainstream liberal discourse. And by not acknowledging the ‘manufacturing of consent’ element of mainstream Western media – a fact that has now been written about in countless books, articles and blog sites, it falls prey to simple, and yet again, ‘liberal’ ideas about what ‘diversity’ means and ought to be.

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The Impossible Project: A Discussion – Amsterdam, Netherlands November 17 2015

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What happens when the issue, the situation or the circumstances do not permit or posses the obvious photograph? What does a photographer, who believes in the issue and is determined to bring it to light, do when s/he finds herself unable to find and/or take photographs? NOOR photographers Asim Rafiqui, Benedicte Curzen and Stanley Greene discuss a project each that confronted them with this challenge, and talk about how, determined to tell the story, they chose unconventional and unexpected approaches to it.

During the week of 16-20 November, Stanley, Bénédicte and Asim are teaching the NOOR-Nikon Amsterdam Masterclass with 15 young, aspiring photojournalists from the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom at De Balie. As part of the week’s program the NOOR Foundation, with support from Nikon, has organized this evening – open to local industry professionals and the public at large.

The evening will be moderated by Nadia Moussaid.

The Courtier’s Obsession

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The Guardian reviewed Carlos Spottorno’s new work Wealth Management and claimed “…that there is enough mischief here to prove that Carlos Spottorno is one of the most serious political provocateurs currently operating in photography.” There is no doubt that Spottorno is a very smart photographer, but I disagree with the thought that this work is anything provocative. Unlike previous efforts, such as his project PIGS, this one falls within the same confines of the predictable and unimaginative.

The fact of the matter is that it has now become quite banal to document the profligate life-styles of the super-rich. In fact, Lauren Greenfield was an early pioneer of documenting the bizarre and deviant priorities and interests of the American elite society. However, since the 2008 crash, there have been a whole host of works that try to speak about global inequality and do so from the perspective of the hyper-wealthy. In fact, there are so many works that Time Magazine’s associate Photo Editor Myles Little could put together a massive global exhibition of works that bring together a visual potpourri of the lives of the super-rich.

In fact, so much so that Michael Shaw of BagNewsNotes even went so far as to point out recently that:

More and more, I’m seeing wealth and power — in specific photo stories, and even more so, in the increasingly random presentation of news photos — as not just a recurrent theme, but as connective tissue….If hyper-capitalism is becoming the issue of our time, however, I’m tempted also say that more and more images…are presenting a moral counterweight. Details »

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