I arrive in New York in a few days to try out a new experiment. It has been a few years in the making, and it has taken a few months of find funding for it. But now it is ready to be performed. The Polis Project‘s first Un/Do-Photography workshop will start in New York on November 13th, 2019. And it represents the latest version of a practice of photographic teaching that I have been working on since 2013 when I first tried a new pedagogic practice at CounterFoto in Dhaka, Bangladesh. These workshops are unique because they are less about the practice, craft and mechanics of operating photography technology and primarily about deconstructing social, political and economic assumptions and myths that underlie so much of today’s mainstream photojournalism and photography practice. The Polis Project Un/Do-Photography workshops specifically engage the students on questions of Eurocentrism, imperialism/colonialism, capitalism, commodity fetishism, femo/homo-nationalism, the ‘gaze’ and power, the myths of Western liberalism, technology utopianism, humanitarian racism among other topics. Our goal, unlike any other workshop out there, is to produce critically aware, and intellectually outspoken photographers producing complex, multimedia projects that refuse the easy comforts of mainstream corporate owned media, and pursue complex projects that challenge us to see deeper and clearly.
These are not decolonising photography workshops. I make this point first because many have referred to what we are attempting to do here as ‘decolonial’ efforts in photography. Our workshops however are not decolonial practice workshops. This is something that I have made quite clear in the past, for no other reason than that I fear the easy and unthinking use of the word ‘decolonial’ and the ways in which it is conveniently attached to various efforts currently underway to challenge mainstream educational, media and other discourses. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang have argued (see Eve Tuck & K Wayne Yang, Decolonization is not a metaphor, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society Vol. 1, No. 1, 2012, pp. 1-40].
One trend we have noticed, with growing apprehension, is the ease with which the language of decolonization has been superficially adopted into education and other social sciences, supplanting prior ways of talking about social justice, critical methodologies, or approaches which decenter settler perspectives.
Decolonialism is a complex, and historically anchored practice that is grappling with colonial and European epistemologies and ontologies. It is extracting and placing at the centre world-views, histories, experiences, ontologies, knowledges and values of those that colonialism previously usurped and erased. It is a practice that has many variants, and is conducted in unique and even inconsistent ways across many disciplines.
The Un/Do-Photography workshops are not a decolonising practice because they are not centred on challenging the ontologies and theories of visual practice and photography. But perhaps most importantly, they are not focused on revisiting histories, but on revealing the present and current practice. These workshops are determinedly focused on the now, and in the present examining the current state and focus of media and visual journalism practice. And whereas we do look at histories of colonialism, the ways it transformed itself into humanitarianism and modernist developmentalism, the relationship of photo technology and colonisation and more, they are always about practices, and prejudices that have seeped into the field and how these practices and prejudices relate to the interests of power, and capitalism.
For too long, and too consistently, the education of photographers has focused on technical and aesthetic elements. I believe that both these are secondary to what they should actually be learning. I also believe that both the technical and aesthetic elements are today, in a world of advanced and easy-to-use handheld smart phone cameras, the least important, relevant, and interest aspect of photography. The entire practice and market of photography has changed in ways we could not have anticipated, and digital media has opened up spaces for new kinds of photographic and aesthetic practices. But, it has also opened up spaces for new kinds of photo projects, for new voices, for new and complex project design and methods of dissemination and distribution.
Yet, photography workshops are trapped in outmoded, out-dated and anachronistic teaching practices. We are still teaching students in ways of seeing, and ways of producing, that reek of nostalgia and romanticism rather than equipping them to find independence, and advanced story-telling and narrative skills. Our ‘masters’ (men and women who wax lyrical about the future of photography), are trapped in a fetish of technology, and continue to help veil the role of social, corporate and economic forces that have actually transformed the photographic practice. These ‘masters’ continue to distract us with the utopian promises of technology, while remaining silent about the insidious and invasive ways the lines between state and corporate propaganda and news have been completely blurred. These ‘masters’ are silent on our declining democratic order, the ways in which technology has become a chain to thought, invading our privacy, stealing our knowledge, controlling our ideas and intervening to stop us from action and from voicing arguments. These ‘masters’, and the workshops that so many of them continue to lead, shy away from a world where media has become a tool of power, where money can buy journalism, where the state sets the headlines and where we are increasingly told to worship the military, obey our leaders, remain silent in the face of violence, value racism and celebrate war. The continued obsession with the technology of photography, aesthetics, the apolitical and the out-dated ways in which we teach it, are helping distract us from the need of the moment. We are living through a time when photographers are choosing easy subjects sanctioned by humanitarian organisations, or the political priorities of power. Too many have been seduced away from dissenting positions against power, into producing projects that celebrate the myths of liberalism, the distractions of militarism, and the destruction and dispossessions of capitalism. They confuse awards, recognitions, assignments, and double-page spreads as a marker of their talent, rather than the signs of their exploitation by corporate, and political power. They refuse or fail to see how they serve interests that they either do not understand, or care not to. Today, in photography and photojournalism, a photographer’s participation and celebration in mainstream media outlets is more a sign of her intellectual and ethical failure than of her talent or relevance.
The Un/Do-Photography workshops are response to our age, and they are an experiment in transforming photographic educational practice. They are aimed at those who want to be something more than be just a photographer, and produce works that are something more than merely a double-page spread in a major magazine. They are aimed at students less inspired by awards and corporate media recognition, and more by a desire for critical engagement, learning and difficult dissent.
I began this experiment in 2013. It evolved further in Pakistan with the collaboration and support of Wendy Marinssen and the folks at the Pakistan Photo Festival. The unique projects we produced with our students then can be seen on the Pakistan Photo Festival website. Since then, Suchitra Vijayan and I at The Polis Project have continued to think about pedagogies and methodologies and to develop workshop practices that can push us into new spaces and towards new ideas. That is, to think about how we can go even further. And we have continued to think about how to not only challenge and deconstruct Western photographic practice, but also how to make the practice relevant to story tellers of the global south. Our goals are ambitious, but we believe fundamentally, that they should be nothing short of that. Our students, and our communities deserve nothing less.