Photographing The Unseen Or What Conventional Photojournalism Is Not Telling Us About Ourselves

Unmarked 737 at "Gold Coast" Terminal Las Vegas, NV Distance ~ 1 mile 10:44 p.m.

Trevor Paglen is a man on a mission and it is one that reminds us that what makes any work of photography relevant, interesting, important or even significant, are the ideas and intentions that inform it. Anything else is merely gazing at pretty pictures. Details »

I Am Not A Journalist But I Play One At The New York Times

In an earlier post called The Most Dangerous Nation I had criticized The New York Times for its reliance of ‘official’ sources to report complex stories in a exasperatingly one-sided way. The Times reporter David Sanger had penned a rather shoddy piece of reporting, titled Obama’s Worst Pakistan Nightmare, on Pakistan that made it to the front pages of the magazine section. Details »

How We Refused To Embed With Britney Spears!

I woke up this morning and read the following piece of news:

“Sweden’s four national newspapers, Aftonbladet, Expressen, Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet boycotting Britney Spears concert at the Globe July 13. The organizer needs to press photographers must sign a contract that gives her the copyright to the images, and the right to decide which images may be published. ‘If they do not tear the contract we will not shoot,’ says DN’s image manager Roger Turesson.”

And I soon wafted into a day-dream that took me back to the world in late 2002 as the final touches were being put on the US military journalist embed program, and this announcement hit the front pages of a oh-so-imaginary-but-courageous New York Times:

“America’s four national newspapers, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribue are boycotting George Bush’s  Gulf War to be held in 2003. The organizers of this event demand that press photographers sign a contract that gives them [the organizers] the right to decide which images may be published and what, if anything, they will be allowed to document. ‘If they do not tear the contract we will not shoot,’ says New York Times photo editor Jane ‘battlefield” Schmoe.”

I have been accused of naivete, and stupidity by those in positions of ‘power’ at magazines and newspapers for constantly harping on this.

Today, with memories that do not go beyond the 24 hour news cycle, editors justify their decisions to continue to ’embed’ their reporters with the arguments like ‘there is no other way to do it – its too dangerous otherwise’. They fail to realize that this is precisely what the embed program hoped to achieve beyond its simple control of the ‘image’ of the war.

We live in the very house we built!

(UPDATE: 25th July 2009: NBC’s new prime-time titilation is called The Wanted that unites ‘special operations’ operatives with self-declared ‘journalists’ to hunt down what they describe – without evidence, right to defense, process of law, right to counsel, a fair trial and a full hearing of course, are the world’s most dangerous ‘terrorists’. Where they get this list is easily guessed at. But, my point is underlined by such lunatic programming – our ‘journalists’, our ‘military’, our ‘intelligence’ and our ‘government’ continue to conflate. and continue to loose credibility. we are not even pretending any more!)

By getting in to bed with one of the belligerents we asked our journalists and photojournalists to participate in acts of war. The Iraqi and Afghani has been dehumanized but can we for a moment imagine what it must look like from the hell they are standing and looking from?

Dressed as toy soldiers in camouflage our reporters/photographers are seen strutting around in US military camps, sitting inside US army Humvees during patrols, chatting it up with US army personnel as civilian bodies lay shredded all around, sharing meals with those who break through doors and threaten families, walking away with soldiers as they humiliate and drag men to prisons, sharing sleeping quarters with those who torture them, and speaking fluently the language of the pillager and occupier.

That is, as pure and simple collaborators with what are illegal, and brutal wars of occupation and pillage.

Is it any wonder then that it is ‘too dangerous’ to cover it from outside the embed?

I will add that real reporters have covered the war in Iraq from outside the ‘voice over’ of the US military. Urban Hamid and Dahr Jamal come to mind, and also the group of young photographers who took considerable risks to produce independent stories from the country and the war and horror that was bestowed on her by our leaders.

I will also add that there are those who did embed, and came back with stories and images that spoke beyond what they were intended to do. Chris Hondros comes to mind, Zoriah and also Ashley Gilbertson to name a few. But these are exceptions that reveal ways that individuals have attempted to get something more out of a bad situation. They are all unique characters, not easily usurped by others and their work beyond Iraq continues to confirm this. I am sure that there are others, but again, these are people working ‘against’ the strictures of the embed program and allowing themselves to think beyond what is being shown.

And perhaps in a great irony, I remember an Iraq photojournalist telling me that it was the ordinary soldiers that were most keen on helping him see the things the Army did not want us to see – they helped him and encouraged him to photograph the insanity of war perhaps in the hope that the images could stop their involvement in this madness!

It can be done, it has been done by more and it is the only and the right way to report these wars. But it takes commitment and a willingness to understand why we are ‘reporters’ and ‘photojournalists’ in the first place.

It can still be done.

The newspapers can still come together and finally refuse to participate in the embed program and possibly even pool their financial resources to allay costs. Imagine if tomorrow all reporters simply refused, announced that they were going to arrive independent of military cover and start to work to establish an independent presence inside Iraq and Afghanistan and make the investments to rebuild trust and credibility with them, and with us here in the USA.

We need to rebuild our commitment to journalism and in particular in the eyes and minds of the people who are dying for ‘our protection’ and our supposedly sacrosanct ‘way of life’!

Newspapers and news agencies around the world have in fact organized boycotts on a number of occasions.  A little research shows however that they mostly tend to be aimed at pop stars, and sporting organizers. There was a slightly annoying incident with the National Football League some years ago, another with the Indian IPL cricket leage and then another with the football World Cup, and another with the Australian Cricket Board. I believe that the band ColdPlay was also the target of a threat of an organized boycott.

If we can confront the power of Britney, why not then the US military?

UPDATES: Some pieces that I came across that highlight the situation in Afghanistan a little better include Escalation Scam by Norman Soloman and a review by Ann Jones of the HBO film Fixer called Everything That Happens in Afghanistan Is Based on Lies or Illusions. I also found the hilarious but vividly revealing blog site for freelance reporter P.J.Tobia who is reporting the daily realities of Kabul and other places he visits.

NOTE: I realize that this boycott, like any against a pop star or a sports league, is less about ethics and standards and more about money. Rights to images determines of who gets the financial benefits of the images. However, the same argument can also be made for why American newspapers so eagerly jumped into bed with the US military; there was just more money to be made. It is easier to give people what they want than to adhere to the ethical obligations of your profession. Journalism is not just a business but, much like health care, also a public good. It is why profiteering by medical insurance companies or health care companies, so repulses us. Remember the Hippocratic Oath? We believe in the sanctity of the profession and its ethics reflect the ethics of our society; we care for all and it is just. It is what defines a civilized and developed society. Journalism is similarly – a public good and has priorities and responsibilities that go beyond money making. It has to balance profits with professional responsibility to serve the public. So yes, of course, embedding was easy and profitable and every one was doing it and it was going to be a huge seller since the nation was drunk of mindless patriotism that demanded blood and soon. We wanted pictures of heroes and liberators, not questions about the immorality and illegality of the wars, the fake intelligence reports, the lies at the UN or about ‘yellow’ cake and so on and so forth. I know all this. I still remain naive, and stupid, and idealistic and believe that regardless of the market share value improvement, it was the wrong decision and one that continues to hurt the newspapers and us as a society and a now-struggling democracy.)

The ICRC Torture Report & The Search For The Truth

1. Main Elements of the CIA Detention Program
1.1 Arrest and Transfer
1.2 Continuous Solitary Confinement and Incommunicado Detention
1.3 Other Methods of Ill-treatment
1.3.1 Suffocation by water
1.3.2 Prolonged Stress Standing
1.3.3 Beatings by use of a collar
1.3.4 Beating and kicking
1.3.5 Confinement in a box
1.3.6 Prolonged nudity
1.3.7 Sleep deprivation and use of loud music
1.3.8 Exposure to cold temperature/cold water
1.3.9 Prolonged use of handcuffs and shackles
1.3.10 Threats
1.3.11 Forced shaving
1.3.12 Deprivation/restricted provision of solid food
1.4 Further elements of the detention regime….

This is the Table of Contents of the recently released ICRC Report On The Treatment of Fourteen ‘High Value Detainees’ in CIA Custody.

It is also clear and precise in its indictment, for example:

The allegations of ill-treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill-treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

The tireless and determined Mark Danner of the New York Review of Books has written more on this report and it makes for compelling and anxious reading.

Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the US Senate Judiciary Committee, has been speaking across the country trying to garner support for an investigation into the actions of the Bush Administration and its now nearly countless violations of American and International Law.  We, Americans and non-Americans, need to join our voices to his. In his own words, his actions are meant to:

One path to that goal would be a reconciliation process and truth commission. We could develop and authorize a person or group of people universally recognized as fair minded, and without axes to grind. Their straightforward mission would be to find the truth. People would be invited to come forward and share their knowledge and experiences, not for purposes of constructing criminal indictments, but to assemble the facts. If needed, such a process could involve subpoena powers, and even the authority to obtain immunity from prosecutions in order to get to the whole truth.

Whether this will come to pass, I can’t tell.  That he is at least demanding it gives me hope.

Play It Again Sam!

There are articles/essays that I find myself repeatedly returning to. They stand the test of time and in this age of throw-away journalism and me-too punditry, these masterpieces are reminders of why real writing and engaged journalism holds such an appeal and how it can cut past prejudices and indifference.  I will continue to link to others in this post as I think of them.

Ken Silverstein’s Parties of God is perhaps one of the clearest and most honest pieces written about the emergence of popular democracy in the Middle East and in particular within Islamic political institutions. Its appearance in a mainstream American magazine was surprising, and necessary. Favorite paragraph:

Talking about political Islam, or Islam at all, is difficult for Americans because our stereotypes are so strongly held. Islamists are imagined as poor, uneducated fanatics who, having turned to God for comfort and sustenance, are particularly prone to irrationality and violence. They do not allow their women to drive (when in fact women drive in every Muslim country except Saudi Arabia); indeed, every woman in a veil is seen as a victim of male oppression. When Islamists in Indonesia attack Playboy or Muslim Brothers in Egypt denounce racy Lebanese dancers, it is a sign not only of backwardness but of sexual repression, which is smugly asserted to be a root of Islamic terrorism. (It is doubtful that Osama bin Laden, who has at least three wives, turned to terrorism out of sexual frustration.) Fear of appearing sympathetic to movements that are frankly hostile to the U.S. government is, I suspect, another barrier to frank discussion of Islamic movements, as is the media’s clear bias in favor of Israel.

Pankaj Mishra’s 3 part essay on Kashmir – Death In Kashmir, The Birth Of A Nation & Kashmir: The Unending War, about the conflict there remains amongst the best primers on the situation ever put to the news/magazine page.  A must read for anyone trying to figure out what is going on in Kashmir, even though it was written in 2000 at the height of the militancy, it still remains relevant and honest and insightful.  There are too many favorite paragraphs but here is one that reminds us that life in this so-called ‘heaven on earth’ was very difficult and cruel even before partition:

The oldest among Kashmiris often claim that there is nothing new about their condition; that they have been slaves of foreign rulers since the sixteenth century when the Moghul emperor Akbar annexed Kashmir and appointed a local governor to rule the state. In the chaos of post-Moghul India, the old empire rapidly disintegrating, Afghani and Sikh invaders plundered Kashmir at will. The peasantry was taxed and taxed into utter wretchedness; the cultural and intellectual life under indigenous rulers that had produced some of the greatest poetry, music, and philosophy in the subcontinent dried up. Barbaric rules were imposed in the early nineteenth century: a Sikh who killed a Muslim native of Kashmir was fined nothing more than two rupees. Victor Jacquemont, a botanist and friend of Stendhal who came to the valley in 1831, thought that “nowhere else in India were the masses as poor and denuded as they were in Kashmir.”

Echoes of Guantanamo

It begins with the Haitians.

HIV/AIDS infected Haitians in fact.

It begins with George Bush, the senior.

It begins in 1991. Details »

Dialogue Between Bigots: Part VI of VI

This is the final installment of the interview, part VI, of ‘Dialogue Between Bigots’

EDITOR: Spanish, French Portuguese and Italian derive from Latin, yet can one argue that today these are the same language? They have diverged to the point where they are mutually unintelligible and hence different languages. All Indo-European languages derive from Sanskrit (including Farsi), yet can one claim they are the same as Sanskrit? Christianity, Judaism and Islam have a common genetic origin, for sure, but over time these religions have diverged to the point of being mutually exclusive. Details »

Dialogue Between Bigots: Part V of VI

This is part V of the interview ‘Dialogue Between Bigots’

AR: I think you are being very liberal in your belief that European law begins with the Bible and that Islamic law begins with the Koran. To claim that Europe takes from the Bible and Morocco from the Koran is to indulge in a terrible simplicity that can only be achieved by suspending genuine intellectual engagement in the history of societies and the development of their social, legal and criminal systems. Perhaps a re-reading of Michelet’s ‘History of France’ is due or at the very least Todorov’s ‘Imperfect Garden’. Details »

Dialogue Between Bigots; Part IV of VI

This is Part IV of the interview ‘Dialogue Between Bigots’

EDITOR: Whereas I agree with you that there is nothing inherently ‘Islamic’ about laws in many nations i.e. your statement is prima facie true. However, the question is what is the source of the common law of the land in Pakistan, in Iran, In Saudi Arabia? You will, of course, find examples of secular law or behavior, but the common law springs from the Koran, just as the common law in Christendom (the West) springs from the Bible. Details »

Dialogue Between Bigots: Part III of VI

This is Part III of the interview ‘Dialogue Between Bigots’

EDITOR:  By Islamic states I mean the countries that are majority Muslim and whose power structures are in the hands of Muslims. Iraq is not an Islamic theocracy, but it is surely an Islamic state. It’s history, tradition and values are shaped by Islamic religion and culture. Let us narrow the discussion. Let’s focus on Iraq and it’s history since 1800 — though we must keep in mind the 1400 year weight of Islamic history and tradition in Iraq. I will rephrase the question. Details »