This week has been a bit demanding. I am starting to return to the entire set of previous year’s work from Pakistan and need to sit and complete my posting of interviews and photographs that have mostly been sitting on my hard drives. I am also returning to my India work from 2011 and a new book layout and design work is being done. There has been a lot of reading to do about a possible project in Yemen, but that trip seems to have been delayed because of some new commitments coming up in New York. And then there is the super complicated arrangements I need to make if I am to ever begin anything close to a photo project in Rwanda. And I will not even mention a new USA project idea that is rattling around somewhere in the back of my head. I do wish that in all this there was an idea that was sellable and could convince editors to work with me more. Alas, I am off on tangents that seem only to satisfy my own curiosity, and leave most in the world of markets and sales, bored and indifferent. How long can this last? Well, another week or so at least. No but, seriously, its been an overwhelming week of ideas and plans, tests and explorations. Much to do, and new trips on the horizon, but at the same time, a real need to step back and look at the work done so far and to start to organise, collect, and put it together into something. In the mean time, here are some things that swept by me this week:
It seems to be the feel-good video of the month. Micro-Banker, a project of the Dutch NGO SYPO, is working on what has now become the most popular form of ‘good’ aid – micro-finance to help women in particular take small loans, repayable with interest over a fixed period of time, to start their own businesses and find their own feet in the local economy. Made famous my the Bangladeshi financial entrepreneur Mohammad Younis of Grameen Bank, the micro-financing model has taken the world by storm and most any financial organisation of repute is busy working with it. The video sells a very upbeat, empowering, and women driven message for its programs in Uganda, with a tune that can have one convinced that all is well, and that the world can be a beautiful place.
Coincidently, just as this video was appearing on the internet, Le Monde Diplomatique published a scathing critique of the micro-finance model as it has been used and exploited in neighbouring Zimbabwe. The article, worth a full read, focuses on what has by now become the most well known concern about the micro-finance model.
International development agencies, NGOs and governments including the US, tout microfinance institutions (MFIs) as the panacea to the socio-economic conditions of the poor. But as FAIR investigations in and around Bulawayo revealed, Zimbabwe’s growing microfinance sector could well be strangling the aspirations of women seeking to enter into small business ventures. Though conditions facilitating access to money became easier, many were attached with high interest rates, instant repayment, and fraud.
This is not a criticism of SYPO’s program – I do not know precisely what they are doing there or how they are working. It is more an observation about how micro-finance is being seriously criticised for the practices that it unleashed on some of the most vulnerable, and least experienced ‘borrowers’ in a marketplace. In fact, in a blistering critique of the Grameen Bank model, Le Monde Diplomatique made this argument:
…the sour reality that has to be faced today is that things simply did not work out as Muhammad Yunus had promised the world — and especially the poor — that they would (5). Instead of ushering in an historic episode of poverty reduction and sustainable bottom-up development, the microcredit model is increasingly being recognised as a quite devastating ‘poverty trap’. Not unlike the case of central planning, which was introduced in the former Communist states of Eastern Europe with great fanfare and often genuine good intentions, but was later abandoned on account of its sheer inefficiency, the microcredit model too was launched with much celebration and good intentions, and yet it too has failed to improve the lives of the poor to any meaningful extent. Accordingly, the microcredit model also appears to be on a track leading to its eventual demise.
The piece raises the troubling fact that growing indebtedness can lead directly to social and political unrest as recent events in South Africa demonstrated. So dance as we must to the music, we have to keep a more sceptical reality in mind. The challenge is that such micro-credit schemes cannot undo structural injustices that prevent communities from ‘bettering’ themselves. I place the word ‘bettering’ in quotes because the same old ‘modernist development’ model underpins these micro-credit schemes as it does any World Bank development project. A fascinating book that explores this question – one that I have yet to read as it sits here on my desk is James C. Scott’s Seeing Like A State:
From the blurb:
In this wide-ranging and original book, James C. Scott analyzes failed cases of large-scale authoritarian plans in a variety of fields. Centrally managed social plans misfire, Scott argues, when they impose schematic visions that do violence to complex interdependencies that are not — and cannot — be fully understood. Further, the success of designs for social organization depends upon the recognition that local, practical knowledge is as important as formal, epistemic knowledge. The author builds a persuasive case against “development theory” and imperialistic state planning that disregards the values, desires, and objections of its subjects. He identifies and discusses four conditions common to all planning disasters: administrative ordering of nature and society by the state; a “high-modernist ideology” that places confidence in the ability of science to improve every aspect of human life; a willingness to use authoritarian state power to effect large-scale interventions; and a prostrate civil society that cannot effectively resist such plans.
These ‘modernist’ ideas of development, and growth and also now being seriously challenged around the world as we are beginning to understand that the utopias we are hoping for may not only never arrive, but that the reasons have less to do with limited access to finance, and more to do with structures designed to keep people poor, dependent, misinformed and exploitable. The livelihoods of many others depends on these realities.
As always, each week one reads a depressingly simplistic paen to Instagram. This week it comes from the National Geographic photographer Ed Kashi, who swoons that:
As “Instagram is gaining a more prominent role in reporting what’s going on around the world, including remote areas and conflict zones,” photojournalists are adapting to this and sharing their captures with the world. Despite the potential drawbacks, Instagram and other social media outlets undoubtedly provide an unmatched platform for spreading ideas and knowledge to an expansive audience. This proves invaluable for promoting awareness about certain issues or events.
Its very difficult to hold any real hope of change in photojournalism when even the so-called ‘serious’ photojournalists cannot really understand what is going on, and what is important. Ed Kashi’s piece about the ‘popularity’ of Instagram hangs on so many false concepts and ‘trendy’ clichés that its difficult to know where to begin to unravel it. But i will focus on just one – something that keeps being repeated without really being revealed for what it really is…the idea that ‘eyeballs’ is tantamount to ‘raising awareness’. Ben Lowy has repeated this argument and so many others, and it frankly makes absolutely not sense whatsoever. unless you are a corporation looking to make a ton of money.
Too many photojournalists do not understand that there is an insidious parallel between the constant use of the phrase ‘raise awareness’ and the advertising phrase ‘getting eyeballs’. When a corporation claims that it is ‘raising awareness’, what it is actually going after is an attempt to attract the highest number of clicks through, eye balls and readers, so that the site / online business can create data / statistics that are then sold to advertisers for millions of dollars of revenue contracts and profits.
This small detail is lost on photojournalists waxing lyrical about ‘social media journalism’ – a completely fictitious idea created by online marketers and publications who have convinced too many that simply posting all your hard work, journalistic images, onto Instagram is ‘raising awareness’ and ‘doing journalism’. Its not. its simply creating a lot of ‘sellable’ content for Instagram, and for publications that re-route the ‘eyeballs’ onto their own websites, all of which are supported by charging massive amounts in advertising fees.
The photojournalist is the only chump in the equation, not only doing the actual hard work in the field, but buying hook-line-and-sinker, the idea that its ‘good for her’ to just put her work ‘out there’. There is no digital revolution when it comes to getting cash for your work. people like Kashi avoid this small fact i.e that their large assignments, commissions and what have you are subsidising their willingness to just throw their images up on Instagram. but what about the guys who are not shooting for National Geographic?
All this ‘social media journalism’ stuff tries to veil the hard, old-fashioned, non-digital reality of the fact that an individual, and corporations, have different possibilities of revenue from social media. You cannot compare the individual photojournalist’s possibilities on Instagram – largely promotions, vanity, ‘likes’ and such, with the corporate publications possibilities on Instagram – click-throughs and statistical facts that translate directly into revenue and profits. For the latter, the more people who see something, the more likely they are to get the click-throughs that are necessary for their advertising revenue models.
So what is your revenue model on Instagram for the photojournalist? Well, there isn’t any. Even a piece that appeared in the questionable British Journal of Photography titled ‘The New Economics of Photojournalism: The Rise of Instagram‘ said a lot of swooning things, but it said anything about a new economics of photojournalism! The article began by telling us all the corporations, and corporate sponsored celebrities that are on Instagram:
It has attracted celebrities such as Barack Obama, Jamie Oliver, Ryan Seacrest, Jessica Alba, Justin Bieber and Oprah Winfrey, who now have hundreds of thousands of followers, if not more – Obama has 1.2 million while Bieber has 2.8 million.
The app’s success has also attracted brands, with Starbucks, MTV, McDonalds, Nike and even Tiffany & Co opening their own accounts – sharing, in most cases, behind-the-scenes images of their operations. And with 80 million potential followers, it’s understandable why these companies would take a particular interest in the app.
So far, no photojournalists. In fact, Marcus Bleasdale is featured in the piece and he argues:
I would never share my formal final edit on this platform, but I am happy using it as a way of sharing my visual diary with people who are interested
Or John Vink who very clearly points out:
I mainly post trivial or family-related stuff, I am not using Instagram intensely. What I post is much more mood-related than what I post on my weblog. The weblog, connected to Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter is still my backbone for communicating
But what is fascinating is that a major National Geographic photographer is quoted in that piece saying this sceptical statement:
What concerns me is that this is yet another channel for creating and disseminating photography that does not bring in income. At least not yet. I gather ‘building your brand’ is all the rage and while I acknowledge the importance of that, it’s not why I create nor do I see a direct correlation to making a living and developing this field into the digital era where creators’ work is respected, compensated and properly appreciated.
The photographer is Ed Kashi! In fact, in this article, Kashi is blistering in his concerns:
Kashi wonders whether Instagram is yet another fad that “further feeds the devaluation of our craft and continues to contribute to the destruction of this field as a viable way to make a living”. His concerns come on the heels of the release of his Photojournalisms iPad app, which failed to gain interest from users. “I am willing to explore these new models of distribution, but it’s a crap shoot and requires a lot of trial and error. We’re also facing the audience’s expectation of not having to pay for content. I don’t mean to be negative, but it’s a slog. I guess this all makes me feel like asking, ‘so this is what it’s come to?'”
Good journalism needs time, money and commitment. not a social media platform. Instragram is nothing more than another distribution channel, and nothing more. all these statements about ‘our media hungry world’ don’t explain where this hunger comes from, and how it is defined. it is yet another phrase created to put pressure on people to produce more and more and do it for free as the engines of corporate profit realise that they can make individuals do that!
Why are people like Ed selling us this snake oil? Why do even the most experienced amongst us keep telling us that it is the ‘evolution’ of toys like ‘Instagram’ that are the pressing issues of the craft? What about the ethics of doing un-mediated photojournalism – any ‘joe’ can throw up anything, anytime with any manipulation. What about editorialising the work? what about experience, and editing, and argument and authorship? What about interpretation and analysis? photos are merely facts, but who creates the knowledge? what about the insidious influence of embedding with political censors and military control? Why is ‘Instagram’ and ‘social media’ the obsession when the entire field of photojournalism lies in tatters and photographer’s rights and ability to produce serious work simply cast aside by almost all publications? Why not the arguments that editors at Harper’s and XXI (France) have been making which – instead of wallowing in some elementary MBA class clichés – get to the heart of the challenges in producing real journalism and what it will take to get back to that work.
Ed Kashi knows these concerns. I just wonder why in the space of one year they seem to have been set aside for something mindlessly upbeat.
But look how thoroughly history has been dissolved! See how horrific circumstances are distilled into effervescent platitudes! The Museum of Tolerance teases unconvincing homilies from Holocaust history, as if intolerance were the root cause of genocide, which now seems to be an international delusion. As a result, the extreme is diminished in its awfulness, the trivial becomes grotesque and, ultimately, any analogy becomes possible.
This work touches on a fundamental question I am going to examine in my own work on memorials ie what are we being asked to remember, and what are we being asked to take away from the displays, presentations, and arguments offered there.
Evgeny Morozov very poignantly pointed out that there is a difference between memory and documentation. That memory emerges as much from forgetting and from selectively remembering, and much depends on what we wish to achieve as individuals, and what we wish to have remain in our lives. Turning to Volf and Margalit, he also argues that at times memory becomes a weapon of war – something I could feel very strongly in the rather biased, limited, de-contexualized and frankly ethnically exclusive memorials in Srebrenica. These are controversial arguments, but they are arguments that have to be made because memorialisation has become an industry – much like museums, and it has become a business that is concerned with markets, with customer feedback, with political correctness and most importantly, with politics of a nation.
Is there a benefit to the fact that we chose to forget? Can forgetting be the first step towards forgiveness? Can understanding be less about the memory of human atrocities, and more about the political priorities and decisions that compelled so many to do so much harm? These are important questions to ask. These are fundamental questions, and this article, appearing strangely in the New York Times, offers a mild challenge to conventional ‘feel good’ intolerance / tolerance memorials!
I think that this was a beautifully written piece. It was rather shy in its writing. Something that echoed the very sentiment the writer was pointing us towards. For me personally, I think the question that he raised goes beyond simply editing. though editing appears to be the issue the writer focuses on, but i think he was touching on something far larger. One can sense this in the question that is raised quite early in the piece i.e “So, once the clicking is over, there arises the problem of what to do with the abundant fruits of one’s clicking — how to put it all together into coherent and meaningful bodies of work.”I think this lies at the crux of the matter here and it touches on the question of authorship, ownership, voice, and individuality. What one can see is the writer lamenting the ubiquity of the photography, and perhaps, dare i assume, the sameness of it all. But his challenge is certainly the central one…once all these nice images have been made, how does one transform them into a body of work. It’s a powerful question and certainly demarcate the line between people playing on Flickr and with the iPhones and those using photography as a tool of expression, engagement, and reflection. It’s not just that editing is important, but bringing it all together into a cohesive body of work remains a critical challenge. The writer argues that too many leave the editing to those who have no real involvement or understanding of a work because they can only judge it at the aesthetic level. But if you are creating a body of work, one that speaks from within, one that is authored, then editing becomes less about simply the aesthetics, but also about the message, the ideals, the ideas, the issues you want to raise. editing becomes about creating something.This process has to begin with the photographer herself, and she is at this stage the most important and most relevant editor of her work. there is no doubt that there is a stage where an outsider’s eye can be valuable, but much as in writing, one has to create the manuscript before allowing others to edit it. the writer is not talking about merely editing. one can see this from this part of the essay when he says “Yet, sitting down with one’s images, sifting through them, thinking into and around them, should really form the bulk of a photographer’s work. It is this process that requires all the resources of the eye, mind and heart. It is at this stage that the photographer’s interior worlds of intuition, thought and feeling have to push the limits of the medium through continual self-invention.”This is not editing as we usually call it – this is creating, imagining, producing something that comes from within, that is a product that is beyond the photographs and more towards the ideas. I think in the end that this is what he is arguing – that we can make and ‘click’ the photographs, but in a world where billions are being created, what differentiates and defines something more serious, since image making has become easy and trivial, is the effort made to go beyond the photograph, and towards the body of work. Work that is voice, work that is personal, work that in its arrangement, selection, organisation, and marriage to perhaps prose / poetry or other forms of expression, unique and individual.
This is a story of a native girl being saved by the white man. Flown to the UK, the Western world can feel good about itself as they save the native woman from the savage men of her home nation. It is a historic racist narrative that has been institutionalised. Journalists and politicians were falling over themselves to report and comment on the case. The story of an innocent brown child that was shot by savages for demanding an education and along comes the knight in shining armour to save her….
The truth is that there are hundreds and thousands of other Malalas. They come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places in the world. Many are victims of the West, but we conveniently forget about those as Western journalists and politicians fall over themselves to appease their white-middle class guilt also known as the white man’s burden.
In fact, as a response to Baig’s piece, I argued that:
…what the writer, while dead on, he forgets to point out is that women’s education has remained a rather low, if not irrelevant, priority as far as the Pakistani state is concerned. I wrote about this earlier. If the so-called ‘Taliban’ have attacked schools, then the Pakistani state has neglected thousands, and failed to built tens of thousands more. a simple and quick look at the education budget, women’s literacy numbers etc. shows a state that is completely uninterested in education in general. The backwardness, the illiteracy and the struggle of women to find proper schooling is not a ‘fundamentalist’ problem, it is one that is inherent in the state’s attitude towards its citizens, and towards women. few things are more disgusting to watch the Pakistani military standing alongside Malala – the very military whose massive budget is what denies the Pakistanis of a reasonable education, healthcare and other protections, and equally disgusting to watch politicians garlanding her, the same ones that each year simply pass along ridiculously indifferent education budgets while siphoning over massive amounts towards their pet ‘infrastructure’ projects and other useless, grandstanding stuff. the white man ‘saves’ Malala, but so does the colonised puppets in our own nations.The Pakistani state has failed its women and their right to education. Laying the blame on a ‘Taliban’ group – one that the state has a full and complete hand in creating in the first place – is hypocrisy, venality and mendaciousness at best, criminal at worst. It is crime against the people of pakistan for these ‘men’ of the Pakistani military and state to hide behind the big shoulders of this girl who has done what she believes she needs to do, but is clearly overwhelmed by her rocket like rise to stardom. But i hope Malala realises that these corridors of power will soon be closed to her, that these very men – in and outside pakistan, will soon forget her as she becomes yet another victim of their exploitation, and a barely remembered voice that was used, fobbed off with trinkets and then asked to step aside as the juggernaut of war, repression, exploitation continued. We have been here before. there have been many other Malalas before her….some like Malalai Joya (see: http://www.theguardian.com/profile/malalai-joya) who woke up and realised what was happening. i only hope Malala becomes the Malalai Joya of pakistan and does it soon.
A complete American withdrawal could prove disastrous for Afghanistan, forcing European powers to pull out, as well, and leading to a steep drop in the billions of dollars in annual aid, which pays roughly 80 percent of Afghanistan’s bills and props up its biggest businesses.
After a 11 year military occupation, the American’s have built a nation absolutely dependent on getting money from the Americans – corporate, military and other. This is no longer a nation, but a drip-fed, catatonic patient in a mental asylum (otherwise known as ‘a colony’) run by the American political, corporate and military paymasters that operate it! What kind of ‘pull out’ can you achieve when you are the blood, the breath, and the psyche of the colony you have manufactured? Well, certainly not a real one. These ‘dialogues’ and ‘negotiations’ are part of the fraud being perpetuated here – an attempt to make it appear that Karzai is actually a sovereign, a man who has any autonomy when in fact, given that he is totally and absolutely dependent on American largesse, generosity and tolerance, for not jus this power, but his life, I can’t even see how these are negotiations rather than ‘instructions’ being handed down to the child leader.
We are in the coming days going to hear sweeping celebrations of the great ‘deals’ that have been agreed to, and also a lot of propaganda that attempts to show Karzai publicly acting as a ‘sovereign’ leader – this is an important part of the fraud being perpetuated against the Afghanis – who do not support Karzai or the occupation – and the rest of the world. There is no linearity to history, no chronology, but merely a repetition. History does not start or end, it merely is and has many narratives simultaneously.
The problem is not that we cannot decide whether nearly-naked pop stars are empowered or exploited. The problem is that bland sexual performance is still the only power this society grants to young women, and it grants it grudgingly, rushing to judge and humiliate them whenever they claim it. Rather than condemn girls as they try to negotiate this strange, sexist society – a society that offers temporary, dazzling power to those who play the game –we should be supporting them as they grow up, make art and stick out their tongue at the whole stuck-up world – and that starts with a stand against slut-shaming.
I have often wondered whether a woman’s reliance on freer, looser, and more publicly acknowledged sexual behaviour is really an act of ‘liberation’, ’empowerment’ and ‘individuality’. Can one really be empowered through behaviour that a male-dominated culture actually fantasies about? Are you empowered by behaviour, dress, language and priorities that modern men actually find titillating, and exciting? After all, we today in the West are no longer living in a world where the women is ‘restrained’ in the home. This was the question the screamed out at me as I read this rather weird and titillating article in the New York Times some weeks ago: