Idea Of India Project Update: Staring At The Many Faces Of Doubt – Some That Cripple And Others That Inspire


If there is one word that can capture how I feel as I return to India to continue work on the The Idea Of India project, then it is the word ‘doubt’. I mean it in both the definitions of the word – as a noun that suggests a lack of conviction, and as a verb that suggests a state of mind that questions known truths.

Rome 2011 by Asim Rafiqui

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I Find Myself Short Of Breath, Gasping For Air Or Fazal Sheikh Redesigns His Website!

From Moksha by Fazal Sheikh

What has always impressed me about Fazal Sheikh is his intelligence and willingness to engage in the complete complexity of the human conditions he documents. There is no attempt to avoid the difficult, or to elide the embarassing. His eye is precise and spectacularly beautiful. His voice is balanced and calm, refusing to use hysteria or sensationalism to distract us. Details »

The Singular Experience Or What Photojournalism Can Be As Discovered In A New Pakistan Literary Review Journal

I think…[y]ou can’t write about Pakistan and get to Pakistanis – it has to be the other way around. Pakistan must be approached as Pakistanis, through Pakistanis, through singular experiences, through the stories we tell ourselves. We need these stories, even if they are never written down and exist only in words over coffee or just in our heads. These are the stories that get us through the day, through the “situation,” through the concept.

Hasan Altaf, Lifes Too Short vs. Granta December 2010

My dismay with the state of current photojournalism has been repeatedly expressed here on this blog. In a number of pieces on photographer and photojournalism I have called for photographers to step away from cliches and conventions and look to produce new stories based on a fresh, creative, new set of thoughts and ideas. Details »

W. Eugene Smith’s The Jazz Loft Project

Lets face it; when it comes to photojournalism and the photoraphers who most defined its characteristics, attitudes, aspirations, values and language, we would almost always have to begin with W. Eugene Smith. The master photographer, the passionate soul, the determinedly individual and independent, the singularly human, Eugene Smith raised the bar of not only how one worked as a photographer, but also how one ‘drew’ a photograph onto film.

Who can ever forget the beauty of Tomoko Uemura in her bath, and the genius of the photographer who found a way to represent it:

Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath Minamata, 1972 Copyright W. Eugene Smith

I do not exaggerate when I saw that this was the photograph that back in 1986 first made me think about becoming a photographer. It has remained etched in my mind and soul since.

So it was with some excitement and pleasure that I discovered Sam Stephenson,of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, website for his book The Jazz Loft Project

The Jazz Loft Project

Stephenson describe’s Smith’s production of this work as ‘…an obsessive achievement’, but clearly, by his own definition, Stephenson too was obsessed for he points out that he:

…made 115 trips to New York City over a span of time that can be measured by telephones and storefronts: I called Robert Frank from a cold, indestructible pay phone at the end of Bleecker, near CBGB; Roy Haynes on a Motorola StarTAC from a brownstone on 9th Street, a few doors from Balducci’s; and, a few weeks ago, Mary Frank on my iPhone from Spoon in Chelsea.

You can read Stephenson’s piece in the new issue of The Paris Review blog where in a piece called The Jazz Loft Project he discussed Eugene Smith’s involvement in this project and the characters and lives that he documented.

This is a wonderfully interesting site, and it is a thrill to see the love, care, attention and detail that has been bestowed on the work of W. Eugene Smith. Stephenson’s inquiries into the life and career of this most amazing of photographers continues as he works on a new biography that will also see him:

… embark on a five-week visit to the Pacific Islands, where Smith made combat photographs during World War II, and to Japan, where he photographed Hitachi City in the early sixties and Minamata a decade later. There are some fifty more people I want to interview as well. The detective work is intoxicating, opening up unexpected worlds outside of Smith’s immediate circle.

W. Eugene Smith was frequently derided in his times, ignored by editors and even fired from his positions at major magazines. But he worked past all of this through the strength of his vision, convictions and self-confidence. His work and his legacy has stood the test of time and remains an inspiration to so many still naively determined to produced beautiful works about beautiful and human issues.

I Was Once In Arkansas And Saw These Amazing Photographs Or Finding Treasures In Backwaters


One word: Disfarmer

Disfarmer was the name adopted by the man originally named Mike Meyers. As explained on a website that now acts as a link to his archives:

…Mike expressed his discontent with his family and farming by changing his name to Disfarmer. In modern German “meier” means dairy farmer, and since he thought of himself as neither a “Meyer” nor a “farmer,” Mike Meyer became “dis”- farmer. Details »

Going Back To Go Forward Or Why A Book May Hold The Secret To A New Photographic Adventure

It was once quite fashionable amongst photojournalists to argue that ‘too much information’ about a situation, conflict, region, culture, society, subject or story could confuse and damage a photographic work. I remember at least a handful of interviews with ‘major’ photographers where they each claimed that they went into situations and stories such that they were not ‘influenced’ by readings and open to the experiences and inspirations from actual experience. I always felt that this was yet another weak attempt to veil what can only be described as intellectual laziness behind the obfuscating language of ‘the creative process’. It was quite obvious that the works being produced from complex socio-economic environments were riddled with simplicities, banal clichés and a frankly egregious and irresponsible disconnect from the broader social, political, economic and cultural factors that defined the nature of the ‘social pathology’ the photographers were focusing on. Details »

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 »

Digressions On Photojournalism Or Why I Argue What I Argue

the plain reportorial style coerces history, process, knowledge itself into mere events being observed. Out of this style has grown the eye-witness, seemingly opinion-less politics – along with its strength and weakness – of contemporary Western journalism. When they are on the rampage, you show Asiatic and African mobs rampaging; an obviously disturbing scene presented by an obviously concerned reporter who is beyond Left piety or right-wing cant. But are such events events only when they are show through the eyes of the decent reporter? Must we inevitably forget the complex reality that produced the event just so that we can experience concern at mob violence? Is there to be no remarking of the power that put the reporter or analyst there in the first place and made it possible to represent the world as a function of comfortable concern? Is it not intrinsically the case that such a style is far more insidiously unfair, so much more subtly dissembling of its affiliations with power, than any avowedly political rhetoric?

Edward Said on George Orwell, “Tourism
Among The Dogs”, Reflections On Exile, Page 97

This is an essay about photography and photojournalism. It will, for the most part, not sound like an essay about photojournalism but I ask for your patience and a moment of close reading. Details »

Condemned To Obscurity Or A Personal Perspective On The iPad

Well, not strictly. Just a short statement of dissent against all the toy-obsessed hacks insisting that the iPad changes everything. Much like they insisted earlier that the iWhatever would change everything.

The writer Thomas Hettche recentl said something that struck a chord:

Why are people so keen to convince writers to use new media formats? We don’t write novels, poems, plays, essays due to a lack of imagination about what other forms are out there; to the contrary, we do it because we are convinced of being able to communicate in precisely that way something that can only be communicated in that way, and that is something which will silence the racket across all the media channels. Literature is about beauty, which language only reveals when, in rigor, passion, rage or ardor,  you place yourself completely at its mercy as a writer or reader. If you do this, you have nothing to gain from the attention scattered across so many channels.

I think that his words are relevant to any act of individual creativity – literary, visual or other.

There are unexamined assumptions of speed, access, visibility and technical sophistication that distract from the very craft that we pursue. Beneath all this are the engines of profiteering and selling ,busily and desperately attempting to convince us that this next ‘product’ will ‘solve’, ‘improve’, ‘resolve’, ‘transform’, ‘revolutionize’, ‘change the game’ and what not.

It will not.

What I love about Hettche’s statement is the underlying idea of resistance to these market-business driven forces of ‘modernity’ and ‘revolution’. The idea that today, human agency, independence, and in fact, human liberty is in arenas away from the technically modern and towards the seemingly anachronistic world where not tools or toys but ideas, thoughts, and human values remain at the center. That is, choosing not to go ‘digital’ or ‘adopt’ the coolest new technical product, is an act of resistance to corporate forces that spend hundreds of millions on trying to convince us to do otherwise. It is a small attempt to stay focused on individual agency and voice, to avoid being drowned under the endless requirements of ‘upgrades’, and ‘updates’ and ‘versions’ and ‘releases’. It is to hold onto one’s sense of one’s human faculties – ideas, ideals, insights, understandings, thoughts, emotions, sensibilities, and values and retain them as paramount. It is to always use the tool to suit the inspiration, and to never allow the tool to dictate the inspiration.

It reminded me something that David Foster Wallace once said:

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things…then you will never have enough…Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you….Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.…And the world will not discourage you from [this form of worship], because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation

As I scroll through the many online photography publications, and their tiresome and uninteresting multi-media productions, I feel a dearth of ideas, a lack of individual thought all being suffocated by the desire to appear ‘new’, ‘cool’, ‘of now’, ‘in the know’, ‘up with the technical’, ‘using the newest’. I see stories designed for ‘consumption’, aimed at the sell, easily digested, never controversial, rarely insightful, always predictable, and most each time, repetitive. I have a headache.

Six months from now this iPad will not be good enough. Today Apple calls it ‘the revolution’, but in six months as a new version arrives, and Apple will tell you that the original was not ‘good enough’ but the newest one will be the bee’s knees. Today, this toy is the ‘must have’ and tomorrow the same company will produce another and tell you the many limitations of the original that now can only be overcome with the latest.

We seem to fall for it every time.

The noise is beginning to give me a headache. Photography blog sites are discussing the iPad and its implications for the future of photography. It being posited as the best portfolio presentation tool available. The future. The platform for which all our works will now have to be produced. The magazines have released savvy, glitzy new applications – and each costs money, and locks you into what it wants to sell. The advertisements featured in these iPad-specific versions of the magazines look incredibly spectacular, and are mostly more arresting than the content. Pretty soon, photojournalists will be producing work that once again will look like the advertisements and dance and sing like them too!

I can’t find the individual in these works, but I can see savvy, marketing, placement, promotion, careerism, and the pursuit of that most sought after of trinkets; fame. Maybe that is my underlying fear; the loss of individuality, and individual thought. Of course, I understand that there are independent voices and commercial voices and that it makes no sense to speak about photography as a uniform field of creation. For some, the medium is the message, while for others, the message is the message. I realize that the latter are probably committing suicide.

I also see that many professional photojournalists are actually commercial photographers – their clients being the corporate newspaper publishers, their product the wars, pathologies, issues of concern being asked for by the media institutions. Not much of a difference there – they are just hawking the same products on the pages of the magazines. And no doubt, there are days when I so want it as well – the fame, the name. But each time I step towards it I get a headache. I want to be modern, cool, in the know, and of the moment. My ego strives to be ‘recognized’, appreciated and considered amongst the relevant. I want to be more ‘professional’, better ‘packaged’, more succinct and presentable.

Yet I cringe when I realize the price I must pay and I falter at the doorsteps of magazine editors, stutter during discussions of ‘hot’ and ‘popular’ stories that I think will sell, remain silent about the personally exciting ones that I know will be met with derision, trip over purchasing technical toys that can transport me into the world of the modern digital photographer. People see me as old-fashioned, somehow out of touch and intentionally difficult. But they are wrong. I crave not the trappings of modern possessions, but the possession of modern thoughts and ideas. The latter I can’t reveal on the slide show option of the iPad. I can only do it in a face-to-face conversation, and these are harder to come by. There is no time away from the iPad!

Am I condemned to conventionality, predictability and popularity?

Or am I condemned in my anachronism to obscurity and irrelevance?

How To Take Photos Of Africa Or Where Intent And Ideas Collide

Binyanvanga Wainaina’s essay How to Write About Africa remains one of the most powerfully insightful criticism and accusation of the continued dehumanization and oppression of Africa and Africans that continues in modern day language, photography, fine art, literature, poetry and the stultifying and lobotomizing rhetoric of so-called aid organizations and their employees.

It was an essay that stopped me in my tracks and forever changed the way I looked at Africa as a photographer and as a viewer of photography from the continent. It was also the essay that led me to search out more interesting, complex and human works from and about that continent. Details »