Nadia Bilbassy, White House correspondent for MBC, a satellite TV network in Dubai, what do you really think about the American Washington Press Corp? No, really..and in case you missed it, here is a transcript of her comments
Khawaja Ghulam Farid was a Sufi poet, and this is the Pakistani singer Areib Azhar singing one of his poems Husn-e-Haqiqi (The Beauty of Truth). This performance is nothing short of stunning, one of the more beautiful renditions of this poem I have ever heard. And Azhar’s voice is simply magnificent – controlled and guided to provoke the heart and emotions in a way that only South Asia’s Sufi folk music can.
Below is a translation, by Areib Azhar himself, of this beautiful poem:
O’ Beauty of Truth, the Eternal Light!
Do I call you necessity and possibility,
Do I call you the ancient divinity,
The One, creation and the world,
Do I call you free and pure Being,
Or the apparent lord of all,
Do I call you the souls, the egos and the intellects,
The imbued manifest, and the imbued hidden,
The actual reality, the substance,
The word, the attribute and dignity,
Do I call you the variety, and the circumstance,
The demeanor, and the measure,
Do I call you the throne and the firmament,
And the demurring delights of Paradise,
Do I call you mineral and vegetable,
Animal and human,
Do I call you the mosque, the temple, the monastery,
The scriptures, the Quran,
The rosary, the girdle,
Godlessness, and faith,
Do I call you the clouds, the flash, the thunder,
Lightning and the downpour,
Water and earth,
The gust and the inferno,
Do I call you Lakshmi, and Ram and lovely Sita,
Baldev, Shiv, Nand, and Krishna,
Brahma, Vishnu and Ganesh,
Mahadev and Bhagvaan,
Do I call you the Gita, the Granth, and the Ved,
Knowledge and the unknowable,
Do I call you Abraham, Eve and Seth,
Noah and the deluge,
Abraham the friend, and Moses son of Amran,
And Ahmad the glorious, darling of every heart,
Do I call you the witness, the Lord, or Hejaz,
The awakener, existence, or the point,
Do I call you admiration or prognosis,
Nymph, fairy, and the young lad,
The tip and the nip,
And the redness of betel leaves,
The Tabla and Tanpura,
The drum, the notes and the improvisation,
Do I call you beauty and the fragrant flower,
Coyness and that amorous glance,
Do I call you Love and knowledge,
Superstition, belief, and conjecture,
The beauty of power, and conception,
Aptitude and ecstasy,
Do I call you intoxication and the drunk,
Amazement and the amazed,
Submission and the connection,
Compliance and Gnosticism,
Do I call you the Hyacinth, the Lilly, and the Cypress,
And the rebellious Narcissus,
The bereaved Tulip, the Rose garden, and the orchard,
Do I call you the dagger, the lance, and the rifle,
The hail, the bullet, the spear,
The arrows made of white poplar, and the bow,
The arrow-notch, and the arrowhead,
Do I call you colorless, and unparalleled,
Formless in every instant,
Glory and holiness,
Most glorious and most compassionate,
Repent now Farid forever!
For whatever I may say is less,
Do I call you the pure and the humane,
The Truth without trace or name.
(Translation by Areib Azhar)
You may also want to check out some of the other performances on the Coke Studio website. This performance by the masterful Saeen Zahoor of Bulleh Shah’s, another Sufi folk poet, is truly stunning.
The entire Coke Studio sessions can be seen and heard here: Coke Studio. It is a remarkable collection of music and talent, a truly beautiful reflection of Pakistan and her deep connections to her Indian heritage. This is not just Pakistani music – this is the voice of South Asia, tracing its heritage and traditions to hundreds of years of development and evolution. These songs, these poems, their voices and their passion transcend boundaries, and reflect the continuities of traditions and cultures that Edward Said was so determined to remind us of.
The story was just not coming together. It had sounded very strong when we had been researching it – an examination of the economic and social communities that emerged around an important Sufi shrine, and what this meant for the creation of a tolerant and pluralistic culture. But the pictures that Brittany was bringing back in the first week were too literal, too obvious and lacked a connecting theme. They were a literal documentation of the economic and spiritual world that existed around the dargah of Gharib Nawaz Moinuddin Chisti. And we knew that we were looking for, hoping for, something more than the literal. But it has to be admitted that both Sara and I were initially unable to articulate what this ‘something more’ would be. I at least had hoped that Brittany would just discover it once she was out working. But for at least the first week it did not seem to offer itself and the frustration and concern on Brittany’s face only grew.
She kept going out to make pictures, and kept cornering us to look at what she had found. Brittany was perhaps the most determined to find this ‘something more’ we had been talking about. She spent hours pouring over her day’s take, discussing and arguing and challenging. We would look at each individual image and try to understand what was working and what was not. We talked for hours. And it was in one of these determined sessions that she would initiate that we had our breakthrough.
Brittany had become interested in the flower vendors that surrounded the dargah and realized that they would be an important element of her story. She made friends with local vendors and spent a lot of time around their warehouses and storefronts. She was determined that they were the relevant ‘economic’ element of her story. It was while discussing this with Sara Terry that they hit on the idea that the flower was in fact the story! It was that binding element that tied the whole story together, and that offered a unique way to speak about Ajmer, the culture of tolerance and pluralism around the shrine, and the economic realities that helped tie it all together! They both turned to me and said what I thought. I think I said “Hallelujah!”
Here are a few samples from Brittany’s Aftermath/EXPOSURE workshop story called The Rose of Ajmer:
Edward Said passed away on 25th September 2003. I am re-reading his Representations of the Intellectual, a book that has had a major influence on my own way of negotiating the world, in his memory this week. Though I never met him when I was at Columbia he was a powerful intellectual force at the campus, and even us on the far edges of his universe could not help but be pulled towards his ideas and views. And we continue to be, with his works Reflections on Exile, After The Last Sky, Humanism & Democratic Criticism, The Politics of Dispossession, On Late Style, Musical Elaborations and Culture & Imperialism repeatedly being taken down from the bookshelf as references or as reminders of ways of thinking
His death was widely mourned, and widely spoken about. Here are links to some obituaries that you may have missed:
In a small tribute to the man, Democracy Now! has an archive page of Edward Said’s appearances which you can see here
Speaking of a history of ugliness, that lovely man shaking the hands of our Secretary of State is Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the President of the nation of Turkmenistan. This photo was taken on September 21, 2009. At the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Quite the address.
This gentleman, all decked in what appears to be the uniform of the civilized, modern, accommodating, liberal, peace loving dictators we so love, heads a country that has one of the most heinous record when it comes to human rights and justice. Just a search on the Amnesty International website or the Human Rights Watch website yields just too many reports to actually read! But even a cursory search on the HRW website report reveals the following:
Turkmenistan remains one of the most repressive and authoritarian countries in the world because the government has not altered the institutions of repression that characterized Niazov’s rule. Hundreds of people, perhaps more, languish in Turkmen prisons following unfair trials on what would appear to be politically motivated charges. Draconian restrictions on freedom of expression, association, movement, and religion remain in place. Teaching of the Ruhnama, Niazov’s “book of the soul,” has been cut back, but is still part of the state education curriculum.
Oddly, our Assistant Secretary of State Robert O’ Blake was quick to point out that
…human rights is not as big an issue in Turkmenistan as it is in some of the other Central Asian countries.
I wonder if it had something to do with this earlier comment he made in the same meeting:
U.S. [oil] companies are already doing a lot of business in Turkmenistan, particularly offshore, and are interested, I think, in doing more work to develop some of the onshore hydrocarbon resources there. And so the Secretary conveyed that interest. The Turkmen president said that he’s going to be meeting – in fact, next – tomorrow – with a lot of the U.S. oil companies to, again, explore what more they can do in Turkmenistan. So that’s certainly a welcome development.
So remind me again, what was it that we had hoped would change with this new administration?
I really can’t remember!
Her’s was a very personal walk. Each day Jessica would take a rickshaw to Ajmer’s Delhi gate, negotiate her way through the narrow alleys around the Gharib Nawaz dargah – clogged each day with tens of thousands of pilgrims anxious to enter what is quite possibly the most important pilgrimage center in South Asia for people of all faiths, and begin the slow near two kilometer trudge uphill to the shanties on the hills where the community of illegal Bangladeshis lived.
Each day she would enter a neighborhood that, though initially welcoming, had become increasingly concerned about her presence there. Harassed by the police, pursued by exploitative journalists and wary of ‘welfare’ workers out to make a quick buck, the community of Bangladeshis had learned to live with suspicion and doubt. A foreign woman photographer arriving at their doorsteps each day was a source of unwanted attention. They wanted her to complete her work quickly and leave. Like all the other photographers from the local newspapers did. But Jessica was there to tell a different story, and to produce a different work. So she kept coming back, kept negotiating her way in.
Her research had revealed that the issue of illegal immigrants was a hot political topic, but few had really bothered to investigate the actual lived lives of the people and the struggles and aspirations that kept them together as a community and their dignity as human beings. So Jessica kept going back to the shanties, and kept exploring. And each day she kept coming back with some remarkably personal and gentle images of a people long denigrated and dehumanized in India’s charged political climate. What amazed me was that her process was genuinely exploratory; a look at her digital files revealed a photographer relentlessly working a situation, missing her marks, but staying the course and then capturing a wonderfully evocative and intelligent frame. A real photographer’s process.
Here are a few samples from Jessica’s Aftermath/EXPOSURE workshop story:
“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.” – Erich Fromm
Do you prefer to shoot digital or film? – Many have tried to answer this question, and yet I find that I remain unconvinced by most all the answers. Repeatedly, a number of well known photographers shooting on film seem to struggle to offer a simple, clear answer to this question. Most just give up.
A couple of years ago it was a ‘you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’ type of question – the answer could be one or the other, and intelligence, consideration, insight and commonsense had no place in the dialogue. Today, with digital more mature and brilliant as ever, it actually becomes a harder question to answer. Again and again I see studies and research articles reminding me that digital resolution, detail, etc. are far superior to anything film can offer. Having lost all the technological arguments, many resort to rather weak arguments that revolve around rather inane and desperate statements like ‘I like holding film’, or ‘I like to have something tangible in front of me’ or other such nonsense. A losing battle really with none really being able to defend this ‘dying’ space.
I am predominantly a film shooter. The entire project on India, The Idea of India, is being shot on Kodak Portra 160NC and 400NC color negative film. Prior to this I have shot magazine assignments on film. I turn to digital only in specific situations where the client’s turnaround time does not allow time for processing, scanning and fixing of film images. But whenever and wherever given the choice I always return to film. I have shot both slide and color negatives, and of course, a lot of b&w. I don’t have the definitive answer, but I do have an answer. I am dismayed that it has not, as far as I know, been articulated before. If I am wrong please do email me a link. I would be happy to have any further backers of my thoughts, trust me!
I prefer to shoot film because it is a more human process, complete with all the frailties, mistakes, fears, worries, concerns, and doubts that define me as a human being. Yes, of course, digital has all the utilitarian advantages (cheaper, faster, quick turn around sharper etc.), but film retains all the creative advantages.
Film photography remains a slower process, requiring greater concentration and awareness since mistakes cannot be corrected by the time the results are seen. It is also a process filled with doubt, fear and uncertainty. It requires us to confront fear and work to make it something that drives us. The results are unknown, our memory of what has been captured uncertain, and we keep coming back, keep looking, keep exploring and shooting. The doubts drive, define, and push. The fear maintains the issues and subjects on our mind. We lose sleep thinking about the subject, convinced that we shot the roll on the wrong ASA, or other such amateurish mistake. There is no consolation, as Raymond Depardon argued, for the photographer. Nor should there be.
Creativity is a flawed and uncertain process. It requires mistakes, corrections, adjustments. It is driven by the pursuit of an ideal that you don’t even know exists or even matters. But something drives you, as a blind man searching for his sight but not knowing when and where he will find it. Writers, poets and fine artists embrace these uncertainties, channels these fears, thrive on the mistakes and persevere past the failures. I have always wondered why photographers are so afraid of precisely these human instincts and failings, constantly looking for the predictable, the certain, and the promised. Why are we so afraid of what we are?
I shoot film because it gives me more of a chance to be a who I am, complete with all my flaws and doubts. I shoot film because I today embrace my weaknesses and propensities rather than attempt to overcome them with toys. I shoot film because I must reach further into myself, my soul, psyche and sensibility and aspire to that place where someday I too may find something to say and show – something unique, something beautifully flawed and hence in its unique way, something beautifully human.
UPDATE: By coincidence Umberto Eco has penned a mild lament at the death of hand writing. In his piece The Lost Art of Hand Writing he suggests that “..writing by hand obliges us to compose the phrase mentally before writing it down. Thanks to the resistance of pen and paper, it does make one slow down and think. Many writers, though accustomed to writing on the computer, would sometimes prefer even to impress letters on a clay tablet, just so they could think with greater calm.”
I agree with his point that it may force us to think before committing words to paper but I am not sure I accept the entire argument. Tempting as it may be to find a parallel with my justification for the love of shooting film, I will resist. Writing is less a craft defined by the tools that enable it as photography is. I do agree that we may write different on a computer than on paper, but there are many social, cultural, economic and political reasons for why we may be writing differently today than say 50 years ago. Not the least of which would be the electronic text editor. Photography however is a mechanical craft, and the choice of the tool is not irrelevant to the work the photographer wishes to do, or is limited to do. That is, photography requires us to make a choice of equipment depending on either our goals, vision and/or preferences, or it forces us to limit ourselves to the method most suitable to the device we work with. A photographer and her camera are a relationship, at times economic, at times creative and at times habitual and each influences, limits and defines the kind of work that is produce.
A friend recently pointed to a poster on her wall and explained that it a Peter’s Map. An area accurate projection of the world, its first publication in 1974 provoked a minor firestorm. Perhaps because it revealed how the world’s powers were in fact geographically tiny nations – as if size and land mass may have had something to do with cultural, intellectual, military and social superiority. China was finally seen to be nearly 4 times the size of Greenland. Africa was 14 times the size of Greenland. Its just not cricket!
I recently came across a fabulously interesting and informative website called Strange Maps. Containing gems like Heineken’ (founder of the beer company) idea of a United States of Europe:
Or a map of the Mahatma Gandhi as India
Or a mapping of what aliens monitoring our TV signals will see (American TV only – we presume that is all an alien life form would want to watch, particularly given its plethora of incomprehensible and socially eviscerating reality tv shows!)
Hers was perhaps the subtlest way of working, one that allowed her to quietly, unobtrusively blend into a space and be forgotten. Rarely have I seen a first time shooter with such a knack for becoming inconspicuous so easily and so precisely. While working on a story about the social and cultural divisions created through sectarian education programs that divide societies through its children, Saloni would keep coming back with images that surprised me with their intimacy. And they revealed a real photographer’s sensitivity and eye. And this from a student who had never shot before attending the workshop! Her first contact with an SLR was on the 3rd day of the workshop itself!
She was also perhaps one of the quietest students attending the workshop, rarely saying anything, but always observing. You could see that in the way she scanned a room when she walked in – a quality and skill that obviously served her well on what was a very difficult story to put together. With social tensions running high in the region, and her subjects sensitive to the intrusions of an outsider with a camera, Saloni had to negotiate a careful line while working with the religious schools and the community caught in the middle.
Here are a few samples from Saloni’s Aftermath/EXPOSURE workshop story: