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 »

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!

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The Pakistan Photo Festival Fellowship Orientation – Feb. 5th, 2017 Lahore

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Quixotic. It is really the only word that comes to mind. Essential. That is the other word that comes to mind. We are launching a Fellowship for young photographers and documentarians from Pakistan. It is no ordinary Fellowship. It is rather a mentor-ship program to help a select group of visual activists, intellectuals, and artists, produce critical and intellectually engaged, challenge and imaginative works about Pakistan and Pakistanis.

Unlike a conventional photography fellowship, our focus is equally analytical and intellectual as it is visual and artistic. Students will be pushed to not only develop their visual skills, but also their critical thinking, research, and field work skills. Throughout the mentor-ship period, they will be asked to look past traditional publishing platforms (newspapers, magazines), and focus on utilizing digital media platforms to create broad, multi-faceted bodies of work.

So join us on February 5th, 2017 and we will talk more about our goals, our ambitions and our plans for the Fellowship. We will answer your questions, offer you chai, share a laugh and ideally, inspire you to become part of this new adventure.

Inshahallah.

We Are Walking The Streets Again – GPP Workshop February 2017

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Once Again, Bangladesh

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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 »

Scratching At My Skin

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“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

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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?

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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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