Archive for June, 2009|Monthly archive page

What's On My Computer Or Thoughts On Digital Image Management & Manipulation

In Background Materials on June 29, 2009 at 4:38 pm

I do not subscribe to the idea of more being better. I have a very limited interested in acquiring new software packages, or hardware devices. To that end I try to keep my digital image manipulation and management tools to a very basic set. Furthermore, I am a photojournalist and do not typically produce the high volume of images that sports, fashion and product photographers produce each day. Keeping this in mind, here is what I loaded on my white core 2 duo macbook.

iView MediaPro: this is an image management software application that I use for importing, annotating, naming, organizing, archiving, resizing, searching and distributing my digital images. To use this product effectively you must also have a very basic file organization strategy so that you know the follow:

  1. What folder should your RAW take of the day be downloaded to & how to name it to differentiate the folder from the previous day’s shoot and future downloads
  2. What are the naming conventions that you will consistently use for your RAW image files?
  3. Whether you wish to use the industry standard .DNG RAW format or leave your files in their .NEF (Nikon), CRW (Canon) or other vendor exclusive RAW file format.

For example, I will have a main folder called AJMER PROJECT. Under that folder I would have one called RAW IMAGES. Under that I would have folders for each individual day’s shoot and named appropriately using dates in the names e.g. AJMER SHOOT 10-07-2009, AJMER SHOOT 11-07-2009, AJMER SHOOT 12-07-2009 and so on. This way you now know where your RAW files are, and they are organized by the day the images were taken. Remeber that your RAW filles also need to be renamed once they have been imported and I again suggest names that reflect the day of the shoot e.g. ajmer_110709_001, ajmer_110709_002, ajmer_110709_003, ajmer_110709_004, ajmer_110709_005 etc. for all images shot on august 11th, 2009  for example.

iView Media Pro can then be used to create multiple ‘views’ into your RAW folders – 1 st selects, 2 selects, etc. so that the original files remain where they are, but you use the visual editor and its thumbnail links to move around and organize the files the way you wish to see them. All IPTC metadata updates to the images – captions, location details, copyright information etc. can be managed from within iView Media – make sure that you hit the ‘sync’ buttons once you have inputted the data otherwise the IPTC metadata details will not be updated to the original files!

Note, those of you shooting video and audio should also think about how to create a folder structure such that audio, video and image files that are related can be maintained and kept together. Naming conventions can be very critical when it comes to such matters.

The same concept applies as you work on your images and create your JPEG versions fter photoshop adjustments. Note, you can open your images from within iView Media Pro and import the image straight in to Photoshop or Gimp.. You can create a folder under the main project folder for your selected, JPEG images, leaving the names as they were so that you can retrieve the original RAW file should you need it, but of course change the .DNG/.NEF to .JPG.

You can of course read all about Digital Asset Management (DAM) from any one of a number of interesting books published on the subject. It can be a complex process and depends on your type of work and the different media types you are managing and creating.

NOTE: It appears that iView was bought by Microsoft (thank you Sara Terry for pointing this out to me!) and this product is now available as something called Microsoft Expressions. I have no idea how much of the original iView Media has been retained, however, you can probably find downloads for the original product on the internet. Send me a private email to ask how. Alternatively, if you are freaked out by Microsoft as I am, try Photo Mechanic, another product popular with professionals. Has pretty much all the same capabilities as iView and then some. Also, there is always iPhoto for those of you on Apple machines.  And then of course there is blueMarine, a free open source photo workflow product. I am in fact experimenting with it as we speak as it does offer some very nice capabilities.

Photoshop CS4 Or GIMP; I don’t know how many of you know but GIMP is the Gnu Image Manipulation Program – a free image manipulation software that does most everything Photoshop does. Those of you looking to save cash and work with an excellent and reliable product can look in to this. I do use GNU, but I am a heavy Photoshop CS3 users because of my reliance on layers to carry out my image work. GNU handles them differently and I am still more comfortable with the Photoshop approach.

And that it it! I do all backups to extenal hard drives manually. And there may be some who would argue for a different approach, so be it. The key is that you are organized, that you can retrieve images from your archive efficiently. Feel free to create folder structures, naming conventions etc. that best suit your work and style. Just be consistent and do indeed keep it simple.

Aside: I do not use Lightroom or Aperture because I do not produce on any given day the volume of work that would justify the use of any one of these products. I am familiar with both and have so far preferred Lightroom because it seems to be a smaller, faster program. But again, I do not use these for my work. At least not yet.


Getting Past The Obvious: Photojournalism & Lesser Explored Frontiers

In Background Materials, Essays On Embedded Photojournalism on June 22, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Dayanita Singh is an Indian photographer. She used to be an internationally famous photojournalist until the day she realized that the India editors kept asking her to shoot was not what she herself was experiencing. There was a gap between the cliches being asked of her and the complexities, human and social, that she knew lay unexamined behind so many of the stories she was being asked to do. Whether the stories were about poverty, prostitution, child labor or any number of the conventional cliches we seem to love to produce from India, Dayanita Singh was unable to turn off her mind. She was amongst the first to produce a series of images of India’s emerging middle class. She had seen this phenomenon at a time when others would not take it seriously.

Dayanita Singh’s work is beautiful, brilliant and difficult. And one project that I have always loved is a story she did on a Muslim eunuch and her daughter title ”Myself Mona Ahmed’, a beautiful, human portrayal of a subject that has been drowned in cliches and populism – we love to gawk at these creatures and stories about ‘transvestites’, ‘eunuchs’, ‘lady boys’ etc. are on the rosters of many photojournalists. And yet Dayanita’s work is brilliantly different because it is so modest and so honest.

You can read an interview with Dayanita Singh about this story and how she produced it.

You can also find pictures from the work on the NB Pictures website. Just go to the main menu and select ‘*nb photographers’ and choose dayanita’s name.

I encourage you to see and understand this work. It will help you see one very important hallmark of an aftermath photographer; the humility and courage to respect the subject agency of action.

Too often the subject is reduced to a mere victim, the better to allow ourselves or our audience to ‘insert’ itself into the story as ‘saviours’ or ‘interventionists’. This has been the traditional approach for a lot of ‘NGO’ driven work, or even ‘news’ journalism that has been arguing for ‘intervention’. Where there is such a need this is essential. But quite often photojournalists and journalists will create this ‘need’ and erase and/or deny the actual lives and actions of the people they are working with.

‘Myself Mona Ahmed’ reveals a story of a strong, independent individual confronting her society, its prejudices, proud to be a mother, dreaming large dreams and never waiting for anyone.  Its an ordinary story about an ordinary person who happens to have a persona and character that is to many of us rather extraordinary.

Such respect for the possibilities, abilities, convictions, determinations, courage and agency of the others is what enables a photographer to find those more complex, multi-faceted stories that typically reflect an aftermath sensibility.


India Research Resources

In Background Materials on June 22, 2009 at 8:54 am

There are some fine online news and analysis resources that may prove very useful for you as you research your stories and India in general. Please do check them out – and use their web based search facilities to look for articles and stories that may help give you ideas and insights:

  • Tehelka Probably one of the best independent investigative journalism magazines/websites anywhere in South Asia if not the rest of the world. Staffed by some amazing writers and investigative journalists, Tehelka is famous for taking on the powerful and the wealthy with little or no concern for its consequences.
  • Countercurrents This is an Indian alternative news and analysis site that invites writers from around the globe to discuss issues of national and international important. You will in particular find their sections on ‘Communalism’, ‘Dalit’, and ‘Human Rights’ particularly interesting.
  • Outlook India An English weekly news magazine worth reading – fairly populist, it does however cover the width and breath of issues Indian.
  • Frontline India Another excellent Indian news magazine, but with a more analytical, rigorous approach to its subjects.

Browse them at your convenience. Research your stories on them as well. I think you will find a lot of articles and discussions related to the subjects you will be exploring in Ajmer.


John Steinbeck's 10 Minute Lesson In Photography

In Background Materials on June 16, 2009 at 1:27 pm

At the start of my photography workshops, I offer the students 2 options.

The first is a sheet of paper in an envelope that they are invited to take home at that very moment, with a full refund of their workshop fee, and trust that what I have written on the enclosed sheet of paper is the only photography lesson they will ever need.

The second of course is that they remain the entire lenght of the 7 days workshop, their fees in my pocket, and walk out of here with the foundations of knowledge and inspirations that can help them continue their path towards becoming real photographers.

No one has ever taken the envelop!

So whats in this envelop? Well, for you, and only for you, I will reveal what is on that sheet of paper. And also tell you that I fundamentally believe that the students should have just taken the envelope and spent the next few weeks simply practicing what they had read!.

The envelope contains a passage from John Steibeck’s The Grapes of Wrath which reads:

The film of evening light made the red earth lucent, so that its dimensions were deepened, so that a stone, a post, a building had greater depth and more solidity than in the daytime light and these objects were curiously more individual – a post was more essentially a post, set off from the earth it stood in and the field of corn it stood out against. And plants were individuals, not the mass of crop; and the ragged willow tree was itself, standing free of all other willow trees. The earth contributed a light to the evening. The front of the gray, paintless house, facing the west, was luminous as the moon is. The gray dusty truck, in the yard before the door, stood out magically in this light, in the overdrawn perspective of a stereopticon.

From John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Page 115, Penguin Books, 2000 Edition

You must go back and read this passage many times, but each time keep the following things in mind.

  • What time of day are we talking about?
  • What is the color and quality of the light that is falling on the house?
  • What is the direction of the light?
  • What is the angle of the light
  • What do the shadows look like, and how may they be moving as time passes?
  • Where am I, the reader, being made to stand to see and experience this scene?
  • How would this very same scene look say 4 hours earlier, and why would I not shoot it then?

You are now ready to be seeing photographers.

Steinbeck captured the fundamental idea of a photographer; an individual uniquely and obsessively sensitive to light and its textures, movements, and shadow creations across objects and landscapes. It is how the greatest of artists saw. It is how Caravaggio saw. And the brilliant de Chirico saw.

Phew, that was an exhausting teaching session. I must now rest!

New Possibilities For Overcoming Boredom

In Background Materials on June 7, 2009 at 3:31 pm

These are pivotal times for photographers and documentarians. Many of the conventions of the craft are being questioned by a new generation of artists and story tellers. With the internet liberating many photographers from the conventional ‘gatekeepers’ – editors, gallery curators, publishers and other voices of ‘authority’, a new generation is going out and producing deeply engaging and complex bodies of work.

There has been a tendency towards mimicry in classical photojournalism. Stephen Mayes spoke about this recently at a presentation at the World Press Photo awards in Amsterdam. I had said something similar, though not as articulately, some months earlier in a blog post on my The Spinning Head blog about the failures of photojournalism.

I have often been asked and challenged on this issue. I always respond by using the example of Darfur, and the crisis in Chad. This story has consistently been represented as a ‘humanitarian’ crisis and a ‘genocide’, with a very clear demarcation between the ‘good’ and the ‘evil’. Practically every photographer on the globe has travelled through rather difficult and demanding bureacracy and terrain to get to this story. Practically all of them have come back with the same story, and with the same images. The height of this coverage coincided with Colin Powell’s visit to the region. Some have made it their ‘calling’ using this crisis as their call to humanitarian arms.

However, I have yet to see a photographic treatment of this situation that captures of historical, economic and social complexities that define the conflict. Most, if not all, the photographers have represented this story in the classical modes of reporting on Africa; a people helpless and victimized, waiting to receive ‘our’ benign and angelic help. The images are constructed to evoke the greatest pathos and emotions. They never attempt to provoke or make an argument (other than the conventional one). In fact, most of the images hark back to structures pulled directly from the coverage of famines in the Sudan from over 20 years ago!

Susan D. Moeller’s book Compassion Fatigue makes for disturbing and fascinating reading. She raises some very demanding and critical points about the way mainstream media (and particular image driven media) cover events such as famines, assasinations/death, war/genocide and pestilence. The points she makes, in particular in the chapters devoted to the coverage of famines, is that editors and media organizations work with templates that they then apply to the all news situations.  A famine in Somalia is covered in exactly the same way as one in Bihar, and the story unfolds over the course of a few days in precisely the same format.

Moeller insists that compassion fatigue is a major cause of the failure of international reporting today. It constrains editors because it leads editors and reporters to not cover situations they believe will not interest their readers. It prioritizes American self-interest (Moeller is obviously writing for the US audience) focusing on stories with an obvious American centric interest. It reinforces simplistic, formulaic coverage of events – if starving babies worked in the Sudan in 1980s it will be used to work again in the 1990s. It demands more and more sensational coverage with a propensity to posit the recent situation as ‘more extreme’ and requiring more hysterical and inflammatory language to have it noticed by the audience (think swine-flu!). It encourages media to quickly move on to the next ‘exciting’ and sensational event so that boredom does not set in.

Luckily a lot has changed since Moeller’s work though sadly I believe that the templates remain the same. Hence my point about the mainstream coverage of Darfur and in particular the way most photojournalists have concentrated their story telling to be from within the refugee camps, with few if any stepping out of this convention to explore alternative and perhaps provocative angles to the situation.  This was made even more obvious when Mahmood Mamdani published a piece called The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency in the London Review of Books. He bought so many interesting angles to the story that I was left even more disappointed – so much that needed to be said was being left out!

There is a great and complex story to tell about this crisis. And it can be explored from places far away from the camps, and from angles that can help us understand what motivates and sustains it. Instead we continue to see coverage that posits it as a ‘humanitarian’ catastrope, or a racially motivated ‘genocide’ being perpetuated by ‘the Arabs’ against ‘the Africans’.

The internet, and the ability to bypass the gatekeepers, makes this lack of depth and complexity even more egregious. Nothing can stop an intelligent mind from producing and publishing an insightful analysis of any situation. Nothing can prevent an engaged mind from speaking out and sharing with the world his/her perspectives and ideas on a subject. More importantly, the complexity and ‘fuzziness’ of issues can now be confronted head on, with doubt and uncertainty being allowed to come through in the works of the photographer/photojournalist.

Fazal Sheikh’s recent work in India, Moksha and Ladli and The Circle, are brilliant examples of a concerned photographer taking on a very complex issue; discrimination against women in modern day India. Without hysteria, moralizing, self rightousness or arrogance, he quietly, in his own, intelligent and sensitive way, turns his camera to a subject that is often ignored and rarely acknowledged. And he does so by placing himself, his views and his grapplings with this issue center stage. You can see samples of these books online on his website, though each book is a masterpiece of production and worth having in your library. I have the last 2, and have ordered the latest one The Circle.

What is important about this work is that as a photographer he is choosing the stance he takes, and the perspectives from which he explores the subject. Without being confined by the restraints of compassion fatigue, as would be a conventional journalist, Fazal can be free to explore the issue as a human being, as a man, and as a thinking mind.

The Hungarian photographer Balazs Gardi is doing something similar, though with a very different approach, with his new project about the world water crisis. A story too complex for magazine editors, most of whom just shrugged when he suggested it, Balazs is working to build a broad inquiry into this question, while balancing his need to continue to work for publications.

Our workshop in Ajmer, India will give us a chance to explore some of these ideas and question many of our assumptions about photojournalism and documentary photography. Most importantly, I hope that it will allow us to see the possibilities we each possess as individual intellects, creatives and actors, to articulate and produce works that are unique, insightful and determined to serve a purpose other than the quick sale, the double-page spread or the competition award. I hope that we will be able to examine India, a nation covered from angles so cliches as to at times completely bury its lived reality, from perspectives that challenge us individually, and confront us with our fears, prejudices, preconceptions and free us to find new insights about issues and about ourselves.  A tall order, but why aim any lower?

The real revolution in photography and photojournalism is taking place not in the tools of the trade, but in the stories we can tell, the way we can construct them and bring them to the world. We are no longer constraint to the printed page and its linear story telling limitations. We are also no longer constrained by ‘gatekeepers’ who decide for us which of our works is acceptable or not.

Yes, it all sounds too idealistic and I am the first to admit that it may be nothing more than wishful thinking. But at least we can think it today, to imagine the possibilities, while remaining grounded in our daily reality. Just 5 years ago, as I began my career, imaging this was not even possible. As I stood in doorways and corridors, often out on the streets, waiting/begging for an audience with an all-powerful editor, I could hardly imagine how I would try to do something on my own.

So if nothing else, at least these possibilities exist. I think that we are moving to an age when the best, the brightest and most compelling are no longer waiting in corridors, but simply going out and producing fabulous work.

Its all quite scary, and at the same time very exciting.

The Allure of Ajmer: On Saints And Empire Building

In Background Materials on June 5, 2009 at 3:06 pm

As soon as that holy man of virtue departed from Delhi to other worlds, the country, in general, and the city in particular, fell into a turmoil and were subjected to ruin and destruction

The man in question is Delhi’s most famous Sufi saint Nizam al-Din Auliya of the famous Nizamuddin Auliya shrine located in the old city of Delhi. The ruin and destruction refered to here by the Bahmani poet Isami is the collapse of the Tughluq empire.

From amongst all Sufi orders, the Chistis were most closely associated with the construction of the Indo-Muslims states in India. In paticular their patronage was central to the planting of such states in regions of South Asia never previously approached by Islamic rule.

It is this central role in the creation of the Islamic empires in India that is taking us to perhaps the city most associated with a Chishti saint – Ajmer. The shrine of Moinuddin Chishti is sacred to all faiths and the saint significant enough for the Emperor Akbar to visit on 14 separate occasions. While working in Jammu Tawi in Jammu recently I repeatedly saw Hindu owned businesses decorated with a replica or photographs of the shrine.

The role of the Sufis in the arrival, spread and consolidation of Indo-Islamic rule in India is what I hope to explore in my own project. It is what is taking us to Ajmer, Rajasthan. I hope that it will offer us a chance to challenge many of the fundamental ideas about when and how Islam arrived and spread across the region. And give us a deeper understanding of the syncretism that Sufi Islam found with Bakhti Hindu practices which later gave rise to a pluralist tolerance between the two communities, including a willingness to share a sacred space (such as these shrines) and the creation of a deep tradition of anti-clericalism in poetry and literature.

I will be putting together a broader essay on the Sufis and their role in the construction of the Indo-Muslim political state for my own project site. I will let you know when that comes together.

Some interesting reading material, if you have the time or the inclination:

Richard M. Eaton’s essay in Gilmartin’s Beyond Turk and Hindu which we told you about earlier, plus

P.M. Currie, The Shrine And Cult of Mu’in al-Din Chishti of Ajmer

Christian W. Troll (ed) Muslim Shrines in India – Their Character, History and Significance

The Workshop Schedule

In Schedules & Logistics on June 3, 2009 at 7:22 pm

Sara and I went over this a few times, but we finally arrived at a proposed schedule for our workshop.

Please note in particular the dates for submissions and review of story ideas:

Preparation Work & Deadlines

  • Story l/ideas must be sent to Sara and Asim by June 15th
  • Story review/comments from Sara and Asim by June 30th
  • Story revisions due to Sara and Asim by July 10th
  • Stories approved by July 15th

The Workshop In India

  • August 9 — arrive in Ajmer
  • August 10th – workshop begins
    • Day 1: Group meeting & talks (location to be determined) from 8 am to 6 pm
    • 15 minute portfolio review for each student
    • Asim and Sara discuss: aftermath project, engaged photographer vs mainstream photojournalism; story narrative and structure;
    • Day 2 – day 5: Start to shoot, then group meetings at 6:00pm – 8:00pm
    • Day 6 – Group discussion day for mid-point reflection, re-direction as needed, feedback, questions, etc
    • Day 7 thru Day 11 — continue shooting in field, but written story outlines are due
    • Day 11 — written story due. no shooting if written stories have not been finished.
    • Day 12 — final edits, visual stories
    • Day 13 — wrap up, show finished stories.
    • August 23 (Sunday) — travel to Delhi to catch flights home

I am working with some people in Ajmer to arrange a decent hotel for us. I am assuming that most all of you know how to navigate yourself to the city of Ajmer. Trains from Delhi are the easiest and actually the most fun. Just email me if you have any questions about that. There is usually a need to book a few days in advance, and you can do that online with a credit card.  Otherwise, if people know their schedule I can arrange for a friend to do this and email us the e-tickets.

Contact me at <asim.rafiqui@gmail.com> and I can send you details.

So the above is the general outline. There may be small adjustments here and there, particularly once we are on the ground and working. We will remain flexible and reasonable of course.

Feel free to contact me and/or Sara if you have any questions regarding the workshop, story ideas or something else.


Asim Rafiqui