Archive for October, 2009|Monthly archive page

Talking To Each Other And Alongside Each Other: Anna Baltzer & Mustafa Barghouti On The Daily Show

In The Daily Discussion on October 29, 2009 at 8:25 pm

Mustafa Barghouti is (Mustafa Kamil Mustafa Barghuthi) is a physician and a political activist; advocate for the development of Palestinian civil society and grassroots democracy; international spokesman for the Palestinian NGO sector, and organizer of international solidarity presence in the OPT.  Writes extensively for a local and international audience on civil society, democracy issues and the political situation in Palestine, and on health development policy for Palestinians living under occupation.

Anna Baltzer is a Jewish-American Columbia graduate,former- Fulbright scholar, the granddaughter of Holocaust refugees, and an award-winning lecturer, author, and activist for Palestinian rights. She is the author of Witness in Palestine: A Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories. In 2009, Baltzer received the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee’s prestigious Annual Rachel Corrie Peace &Justice Award, and is a contributor to three upcoming books on the subject. Baltzer serves on the Middle East committee of the Women’s InternationalLeague for Peace & Freedom and on the Board of Directors of TheResearch Journalism Institute, GrassrootsJerusalem, and The Council forthe National Interest. You can find more about Anna Baltzer on her website A Witness In Palestine and/or from her blog site Anna In Palestine.

The State As The Incarnation Of Collective Interests, Purposes And Goods: Tony Judt on Social Democracy, Its Meaning, Intent and Consequences

In The Daily Discussion, Writers on October 26, 2009 at 1:10 am

tony judtTony Judt directs the Remarque Institute at NYU and is the author of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. His latest book, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, was recently reissued in paperback. (September 2009).

He recently gave a lecture at New York University on the meaning and implications of democracy and in particular social democracy which is worth listening to. There are few, if any, in the USA who can make the arguments that he made, and this despite the desperate need to make them.

Click on the link here: Tony Judt’s 2009 Remarque Lecture

Tony Judt has never minced words. A searing critique of the American Left called Bush’s Useful Idiots in the London Review of Books lamented:

Why have American liberals acquiesced in President Bush’s catastrophic foreign policy? Why have they so little to say about Iraq, about Lebanon, or about reports of a planned attack on Iran? Why has the administration’s sustained attack on civil liberties and international law aroused so little opposition or anger from those who used to care most about these things? Why, in short, has the liberal intelligentsia of the United States in recent years kept its head safely below the parapet?

An essay that raised hackles across the spectrum, it nevertheless raised some crucial questions that few were prepared to confront in particular that the difference between a liberal left and a radical right were pretty much imaginary, if not altogether absent.

America’s liberal intellectuals are fast becoming a service class, their opinions determined by their allegiance and calibrated to justify a political end. In itself this is hardly a new departure: we are all familiar with intellectuals who speak only on behalf of their country, class, religion, race, gender or sexual orientation, and who shape their opinions according to what they take to be the interest of their affinity of birth or predilection. But the distinctive feature of the liberal intellectual in past times was precisely the striving for universality; not the unworldly or disingenuous denial of sectional interest but the sustained effort to transcend that interest.

It is thus depressing to read some of the better known and more avowedly ‘liberal’ intellectuals in the contemporary USA exploiting their professional credibility to advance a partisan case. Jean Bethke Elshtain and Michael Walzer, two senior figures in the country’s philosophical establishment (she at the University of Chicago Divinity School, he at the Princeton Institute), both wrote portentous essays purporting to demonstrate the justness of necessary wars – she in Just War against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World, a pre-emptive defence of the Iraq War; he only a few weeks ago in a shameless justification of Israel’s bombardments of Lebanese civilians (‘War Fair’, New Republic, 31 July). In today’s America, neo-conservatives generate brutish policies for which liberals provide the ethical fig-leaf. There really is no other difference between them.

He has also penned a number of pieces for the New York Review of Books, and one in particular that I remember was called Israel: The Alternative – an essay that cost Judt a number of friends and broad opprobrium. In it he asked and suggested the unthinkable:

The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European “enclave” in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state”—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

And asking us to think what to date has been unthinkable, or at least unmentionable:

The time has come to think the unthinkable. The two-state solution—the core of the Oslo process and the present “road map”—is probably already doomed. With every passing year we are postponing an inevitable, harder choice that only the far right and far left have so far acknowledged, each for its own reasons. The true alternative facing the Middle East in coming years will be between an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. That is indeed how the hard-liners in Sharon’s cabinet see the choice; and that is why they anticipate the removal of the Arabs as the ineluctable condition for the survival of a Jewish state.

Israel itself is a multicultural society in all but name; yet it remains distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethnoreligious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens. It is an oddity among modern nations not—as its more paranoid supporters assert—because it is a Jewish state and no one wants the Jews to have a state; but because it is a Jewish state in which one community—Jews—is set above others, in an age when that sort of state has no place.

There is an extensive interview with him, with extensive biographical information, in The Guardian: Uncomfortable Truths which is worth reading as well.

This Land Called Gaza – A Love and A Curse

In Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Our Wars, Photography on October 24, 2009 at 3:38 pm


“And what projects are you working on at the moment?”

“An exhibition…and…I’m working on the completion of a new book, something very close to my heart.”

“What’s it about?”

“The Palestinians.”

There was a rather long silence…my friend looked at me with a slightly sad smile, and said “Sure, why not! But don’t you think the subject’s a bit dated? Look, I’ve taken photographs of the Palestinians too, especially in the refugee camps…its really sad! But these days, who’s interested in people who eat off the ground with their hands? And then there’s all that terrorism…I’d have thought you’d be better off using your energy and capabilities on something more worthwhile!”

Swiss photographer Jean Mohr describes a conversation with a friend.(1)

Palestine is a thankless cause, one in which if you truly serve you get nothing back but opprobrium, abuse, and ostracism…Palestine is the cruelest, most difficult cause to uphold, not because it is unjust, but because it is just and yet dangerous to speak about as honestly and as concretely as [he] did.

Edward Said on intellectual/activist Eqbal Ahmed. (2)

Jabaliya, Gaza February 2009 Copyright Asim Rafiqui

Jabaliya, Gaza February 2009 Copyright Asim Rafiqui

Most independent photographers arriving in Palestine carry with them the awareness that much if not all of their work will go largely unpublished. This is not only because Gaza and the West Bank are amongst the world’s most thoroughly photographed human tragedies, but also because speaking of the Palestinian’s as a real people with real suffering remains near impossible. Their story has been effectively reduced to that of ‘terrorism’, ‘extremism’ and one of ‘instigators of violence’. Their rights and demands for justice drowned out by the shrill insistence on Israel’s infinite innocence and need for restitution for historical wrongs. And on presumptions of their mendacity and single-minded determination to destroy ‘the Zionist entity’. Even President Barack Obama, in a recent speech in Cairo, placed the principal responsibility of regional violence on their weak, unarmed and repeatedly defeated shoulders. Photographers and journalists who try to reveal a different reality or raise questions about the myth of Israeli innocence or question the assumption of Palestinian mendacity, find themselves ignored, marginalized and unpublished. Independent photographers who come to Palestine do so armed not with major assignments but with convictions that are personal and individual. And they usually come alone.

I arrived at Rafah, Egypt – the only crossing into Rafah, Gaza, during the last days of Israeli’s Operation Cast Lead. This time I was luckier than most for I had the support of a Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting grant and the encouragement of Ted Genoways, the creative and poetic editor of The Virginia Quarterly Review magazine. By the time I argued my way into Gaza, a way repeatedly blocked first by the Israelis and then by the Egyptians, I found myself in what had by then become only one of the most important prime time news events of the year.

The Israeli assault on Gaza began on the last day of Hanukkah on December 27th 2008 and eventually left nearly 1400 dead, thousands injured and tens of thousands displaced. It was covered by every major international TV news channel, daily newspaper and weekly magazine. Their cameramen, on-screen personalities, photographers, directors, fixers and coordinators stormed the walls of Gaza in a rush to film, edit, transmit and broadcast the events as they unfolded. On any given day, at any given hour, dozens of videographers and photojournalists could be seen in the hallways of Gaza’s famous Al-Diera Hotel speaking anxiously into their mobile phones, or sitting at tables in the restaurants, hunched over their laptops, cursing the slow internet connections and desperately transmitting their latest images. And when they were not scoffing down a quick meal, they were furtively discussing plans with their local minders, or rushing towards their waiting cars to get to a ‘hot’ location. Amidst this mob of media I, with my little film cameras and a small grant that gave me the freedom to work at my own pace, found myself apart, confused and more alone than ever before. How would what I came to say be heard over this noise?

My first time in Gaza was in the summer of 2003. I was a novice photographer who went because Edward Said wrote a small response to an email I sent him and encouraged me to go. I then returned and continued to document the situation in Gaza, particularly in southern Gaza city of Rafah where I worked for nearly 2 years. The settlers were still in Gaza then, and so were activists from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), and the armored bulldozers and their accompanying tanks that were constructing the massive steel wall along the Rafah’s border with Egypt. The American activist Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death by an Israeli armored bulldozer, was still there; alive, determined, passionate and beautiful. Home demolitions were frequent along the Rafah-Egypt border as bulldozers tore down Palestinian homes to make way for the steel wall. Tank patrols would terrorize residents living along the border, and there would be frequent firing into these neighborhoods resulting in deaths and maiming of residents. As a photographer I documented my fair share of funerals, Hamas marches and families salvaging their belongings from the ruins of their destroyed houses. Between 2003 and 2006 I made several trips to this surrounded territory, continuing to document the slowly shrinking social, political, economic and cultural space of its inhabitants.

And then I stopped coming. Dozens of courageous Palestinian photographers were doggedly documenting the bitter and crushing existence of the Gazans, and the incessant economic and military violence against them. The international photojournalists too kept coming to photograph the ‘militants’ and the ‘fanatics’, as if to provide the ‘facts’ that would maintain what Saree Makdisi has recently called a language that prevents us from recognizing what’s really going on in the Middle East.3 I felt that after three years of consistent work I had nothing new to add to this dialogue, nothing new to show. In retrospect I realize that it was an act of surrender by a young photographer frustrated by his inability to effectively capture in pictures the sufferings of those around him..

But now I was back again, and walking through the devastation left the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead I was struck by how familiar it all looked. The scale was larger than anything that I could remember, and its consequences very familiar; the bombed homes, the displaced families, the tank-track torn olive and citrus groves, the stunned relatives of the dead, the funeral dirges, the Hamas marches, the victory songs, the numbing buzz of the pilot-less drones overhead, the children scavenging amongst ruins, the sirens of the ambulances, the men on donkey carts carrying debris to nowhere, and that constant, distant human wail of a life torn apart or a hope torn asunder. Here I was again, but I had been here before and seen it before. The scenes I witnessed were remarkably similar to those I had seen during my time in Gaza between 2003 and 2006. As some of the world’s best photojournalists scrambled all around me to capture the devastation for the world’s audience, I found that I still had nothing new to say and by the second day I put away my cameras and stopped taking pictures.

And then I met Ismail Ibrahim Abu Eida.

He was walking alone near the rubble of his family home lost in thought. When he noticed me standing close by he merely nodded and said nothing. I stood there looking at him stumble and trip across the pile of rubble that had once been his home. A lone figure amongst thousands of lonely figures all over Gaza who were at that very moment quietly, resignedly stumbling and tripping across the rubble of their own lives. I wanted to talk to him about what was going through his mind, but he seemed reluctant, even a little embarrassed. “What will I tell you that others have not?”, he said quietly. And he was right.

Abu Eida’s pain – the loss of his life’s work, the displacement of his family, and the ruination of his livelihood, was an oft repeated occurrence in this land. Tens of thousands had already suffered it, and it was certain, given the entrenched ideas and ideals that perpetuate this conflict, that tens of thousands more are destined to do so in the future. In this land of pain, where everyone has experienced the gravest of loss, it has become difficult to express individual suffering or ask for compassion. In a life that must accept as normal the sudden and violent erasure of all that one holds dear, a life in which you console your neighbor knowing full well that someday they will be consoling you, you no longer speak about your own sorrows. You no longer share your burden because others are so crushed under their own. In a life of collective punishment your scars and sufferings are starkly your own to confront and tolerate.

Abu Eida was fortunate. No one had died. His family had been displaced to a UN refugee center, and he was sleeping on a mattress in a cargo container on the family property. With a voice that was severely controlled, he explained to me how tanks and bulldozers had forced him to flee and leveled everything he had built over the course of his life, including his family’s orange groves. Then he invited me for tea. He had only one cup. Ten minutes of digging in the rubble produced a second—broken but usable. He had no place for me to sit but a shout to a friend down the road produced a three-legged plastic chair. I protested this kindness, but he wouldn’t hear of it, reminding me that I was his guest. “It is our way, Mr. Rafiqui,” he insisted, as he made himself comfortable in the dirt, “to honor our guests— and to remind ourselves of the things within us which cannot be destroyed by tanks and missiles.”

As the day grew hotter, the mist that shrouded the citrus groves lifted, revealing what had once been the Jabaliya industrial zone. Ismail pointed toward Israel. I could see a wire fence and the silhouettes of soldiers walking along it. Israeli farmers had begun returning to their fields that morning as jeeps carrying soldiers raced back and forth along the border areas. Snipers kept an eye on the few Palestinians who dared to return to their lands. Despite the cease-fire, Gazan farmers were being shot and killed at random. “I used to work in Israel,” Ismail said. “But that was a different time, a different world.”

This world, the one whose remains surrounded us that morning, now lay in a shroud of dust raised by the hundreds of hands salvaging valuables from the remains of their homes, factories, stores, and farmlands. As I looked up from my cup of tea and out towards the scarred landscape I could see people sifting through rubble, searching for bodies, salvaging remains of machinery, consoling their children, or just sitting amongst the ruins of their homes. It struck me that indeed how fortunate were the dead who had at least, as Plato said, seen the end of war. The living however go on and suffer its horrors, carry it’s burdens, tolerate its indignities, appease its sorrows, and accept its cruelest gift – the death of loved ones.

Later that morning I finally made my first photograph – a family searching for the remains of a patriarch. The bulldozer roared and clawed mercilessly against the pile of ruins, churning up metal, concrete, electrical wiring, toys, clothing and whatever else its massive jaws caught in their broad sweeps. Around it sat many family members and friends, patiently watching the bulldozer work, prepared for the moment the body is discovered. “How do you know if someone is still trapped in there?” I asked. “You can smell it!”, came a slightly exasperated reply. There were no camera crews at the site, no photojournalists waiting to capture the moment. It was just one body, one individual, being searched for. The ‘hot’ news stories were elsewhere that morning and will be elsewhere the day after.

But these searches, these sorrows, and the days without those who were once so close, so needed, will go on. As I stood on a small hill and watch the bulldozer tear away at the collapsed walls of the house I was struck with the realization that even when the world’s attention falls on them, the Gazans are most distant, misunderstood and isolated from us. The world comes to them asking them to be either the hate-filled militant out to destroy Israel or the innocent victims of Israel’s fanaticism. And in the process it denudes them of their ordinariness, frailty and flawed humanity. In its attentions the world ghettoizes them, refusing them their history, politics, memories and agendas. Gone are their love affairs, their family feuds, their fears and hopes for their children’s futures, their infidelities, their ambitions, their material desires, their days on the beach, their care for their elderly, their gentleness towards strangers, their love of food, their eye for the perfect coffee bean, their undying and near familial love of the olive tree and their sense of connectedness with the land.

This land called Gaza – a love and a curse.

Photographer’s Note: This essay was submitted to a Swedish magazine that eventually considered it too uninteresting for publication. It was also the essay I submitted recently to a grant committee to continue my work in Gaza. I did not receive the grant. I share it here despite its seemingly sorry record, as perhaps nothing more than a way to allow the thoughts I put down here to escape from the confinement of my hopes and disappointments.

1: Said, E & Mohr, J (1999) After The Last Sky Columbia University Press, New York, New York

2: Barsamian, D, (2000) Eqbal Ahmed: Confronting Empire South End Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts

3: Makdisi, S (19/6/2009) A Language That Absolves Israel, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, USA.

Offering Silence To The Oppressed Or How Photography Can Become A Weapon Of Repression

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, The Daily Discussion on October 23, 2009 at 11:20 am

An exhibition called ‘Beware The Cost Of War’ recently opened in London.

Reading about it in the New York Times ‘Lens’ blog left me deeply disappointed and concerned.

Let me explain.

(Aside: Yoav Galai, the curator, is someone I have called a friend for some time now and I hope that he will forgive me for this very critical review of what is something he clearly put a lot of work in to. It is not personal, but merely a reflection on this propensity in our world to fear speaking, to raise a voice, to add details and specifics where generalizations only confuse, perpetuate injustices and acquit the guilty. I am sorry Yoav. I must say my piece.)

In their book Another Way of Telling photographer Jean Mohr and writer/intellectual John Berger present an experiment where a series of Mohr’s photographs, each with their captions removed, are shown to a number of ordinary strangers and each is asked to explain what they see in the photograph. As Jean Mohr himself explains:

Was it a game, a test, an experiment? All three, and something else too; a photographer’s quest, the desire to know how the images he makes are seen, read, interpreted, perhaps rejected by others. In fact in face of any photo the spectator projects something of her or himself. The image is like a springboard. (page 42)

The result was that each individual described the photograph differently, thereby rending each photograph meaningless, and completely erasing it of history, context, intent and meaning and replacing them with what were little more than randomly created ideas based on fantasies, prejudices, and ignorances. The photos gave nothing to the viewer, the viewer merely imposed their ‘knowledge’ – factual and otherwise, onto the image. The images became springboards indeed, but they also became empty vessels into which the viewer could put anything and make them what s/he wanted. The images offered nothing, taught nothing, revealed nothing and as a result added nothing.

Jean Mohr also collaborated with the writer/intellectual Edward Said to produce what I consider to be one of the finest, most important, book of photojournalism ever – After The Last Sky. This book, about which I have written elsewhere, is a masterful collaboration between a photographer and a writer. It is one of those rare photography books that has managed to lift itself from the fashionable but frivolous shelves of photography books and into the more relevant Middle East History section of a bookstore.

The book grew out of an unusual context; in 1983 Edward Said was a consultant to the United Nations International Conference on the Question of Palestine (ICQP) and he suggested that some of Jean Mohr’s photographs of Palestinians be hung in the entrance hall to the main conference site in Geneva, Switzerland. The official response to this suggestion, as Said himself describes it in the book, was unusual; they would allow the photographs to be hung, but no words could accompany them, and no explanations.

It was then that Said and Mohr came up with the idea of writing about the Palestinians – about adding the words to the photographs. As Said explains:

Let us use photographs and text, we said to each other, to say something that hasn’t been said about Palestinians. (page 4)

But they were aware that the problems they faced was not a lack of text on this matter, but perhaps too much of it. But it was also clear that:

…for all the writing about them, Palestinians remain virtually unknown. Especially in the West, particularly in the United States, Palestinians are not so much a people as a pretext for a call to arms. (page 5)

Confronting this challenge about how to convey the Palestinian experience to a reluctant audience was not going to be easy, and yet it was crucial and clear that text was going to be a fundamental act of resistance, and that its place for a people oppressed was fundamentally important because:

Stateless, dispossessed, de-centered, we [Palestinians] are frequently unable either to speak the ‘truth’ of our experience or to make it heard. We do not usually control the images that represent us; we have been confined to spaces designed to reduce or stunt us; and we have often been distorted by pressures and powers that have been too much for us. (page 6)

“Beware The Cost Of War” is an exhibition of Israeli and Palestinian photographs now being shown in London. In a review written on the New York Times blog ‘Lens’, a review titled Stirring Images, No Names the writers explain that:

“Beware the Cost of War,” a show opening Friday at the Blackall Studios in London, will be conspicuous for many reasons — one of them being what it lacks: captions and credits next to the images, which were taken both by Israeli and Palestinian photographers.

The notion is that, without words, the pictures will be freer to speak for themselves.

In a slide show of some of the images we are shown scenes of grieving Palestinian and Lebanese families and of Israeli families. The curator, Yoav Galai, we are told:

…hoped viewers would discard customary ideological and political preconceptions as they looked at the images, many of which are deeply disturbing…

He is later quoted as saying:

“I realized it’s hard to show what’s really happening,” Mr. Galai said. “Once a photograph is out there, people ascribe whatever they want to it. So I thought, why not take all the pictures and tear them away from their narrative?”

Yoav Galai is a young photographer. An Israeli who has documented the destruction of the Palestinian social, cultural and physical space in occupied East Jerusalem, he and I have frequently communicated via email and I respect his individual voice and determination.

But sadly I find myself in deep conflict and disagreement with this entire exhibition, and the silencing of the experience, history, and narrative of the Palestinian people already suffering from decades of silencing, marginalization, and erasure. The entire impression of ‘balance’ here is specious, and frankly misrepresents the situation which is simply one of a powerful military occupier systematically repressing and controlling an otherwise unarmed and desperate Palestinian population.

Tearing away the narrative, the history, the context of a photograph is the best way to further enable people to ascribe whatever meaning people want to images, and hence, only confirm and not question their prejudices, hates, ignorances and fears.

That Israeli historians, intellectuals, writers and journalists can clearly speak of this, admitting to the injustices their government has been executing against the Palestinians, only reminds us of the vast gap in intellectual and physical courage that imbues our societies when it comes to the question of the rights of an Arab people.

This exhibition in its current format ends up committing a number of sins against the history of the situation it claims to speak about, and even about the lives of the people involved.

  • The exhibition removes context, so that we never know who is the occupier, and who the occupied. It pretends to suggest that everyone is a victim, when in fact that is not true. Israel is an occupying force, its citizens repeatedly voting into power civilians leaders, most all with deep military track records and connections, based on their ability to ‘handle the Palestinians’. The Palestinians are an unarmed people now trapped in quite possibly the most extensive, professionally administered, rationally planned, efficiently executed occupation regime in history.
  • The exhibition removes chronology, so that we never know whether the act occurred this year e.g. the brutal and unnecessary massacre of nearly 2000 Palestinians of Gaza in early 2009 prompted by Israeli domestic political needs and condemned in the recent UN Goldstone Report vs. the aftermath of a suicide bomb that occurred many years ago and the likes of which have not been repeated in years.
  • The exhibition removes history, so that we never know what it is that violence represents i.e. acts of legitimate violence in order to resist and overthrow and illegal occupation vs. acts of repressive violence meant to occupy, steal, and control.
  • The exhibition removes the ugliest of constant and material facts; the dehumanizing and degrading check points, the summary arrests, the illegal (and yes, please, they are illegal) settlements, the military patrols that enable them, the hideous barbarism of the fundamentalist, fanatical and humanly deviant Jewish settlers, the summary executions, the entire infrastructure – administrative, military, political, under-cover of the occupation regime, the displacements, the senseless closures, and the constant threat of violence that hangs in the air and frequently manifests itself into reality.

The exhibition in fact become a tool of oppression, creating ‘balance’ where there is none, offering the easy consumption of ‘violence’ while ensuring that nothing provokes us to realize the truths that create the violence, the injustices that continue to be perpetrated, and the powers that have to held accountable for what is a clear and simple crime against humanity and massive violation of international law.

As writer Peter Lagerquist comments after hearing and reading about this exhibit:

It’s not only offensive but brutalizing, because it perpetrates another violence on those pictures, and their subjects. They are robbed of meaning, the viewer is robbed of their ability to think critically about violence, rather than merely wringing their hands over it…All that we are left with here is diffuse pathos, the knowledge that violence is bad.  And this simply is not enough; we need to understand something else.

We don’t have to love the Palestinians, but why must we insist on shutting them up? Why must we be so dismissive of values and laws that we with such fanfare created and offered at Nuremburg and enshrined in so many UN charters and Geneva Conventions? Why, when it comes to the ‘lesser’ people, do our voices suddenly find no air, our minds no thoughts, our courage no will and our photographs no captions?

An oppressor wants to erase the voice of the oppressed. ‘Balance’ serves the interests of those exercising disproportionate violence and control over a weaker people and society. A people displaced, dispossessed, ignored, dehumanized, and incarcerated, in flagrant violation of our most valued principles of international law, justice and rights, do not need us to ‘remove’ their context, history and experiences of their suffering. On the contrary, it is precisely words, text, and voice that need to be used to unveil their experience. It is crucial to our responsibilities as reporters, journalists and photojournalists, to speak with courage and clarity and add our voice to those of the weak to counter, and challenge the easily heard and broader disseminated voice of the powerful.

Michael Massing took on the issue of specious ‘balance’ that today’s media organizations strive for and identified it as one of the major problems with journalism today. In a piece called The Press; The Enemy Within he quoted the writer Ken Silverstein (I am a big fan of Ken’s work!) who was then working on a piece about voting fraud in St. Louis and who found clear evidence of Republic Party manipulation of votes but was not allowed to say it as such and encouraged to ‘balance’ it with comments about similar actions, though far less systematic, by the Democrats:

I am completely exasperated by this approach to the news. The idea seems to be that we go out to report but when it comes time to write we turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should…attempt to fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. “Balanced” is not fair, it’s just an easy way of avoiding real reporting and shirking our responsibility to inform readers.

Any easy was to shirk our responsibility to inform readers, and I would add, help them understand the perspectives and principles that are in fact consistently and necessarily defensible. And we are being cowards to not admit that there are principles of law, justice and national behavior and they are enshrined in documents that we love to quote e.g. Sudan, Kosovo, or Kuwait when it suits our needs.

I quote Edward Said from his work Representations of the Intellectual when he points out that:

Universality means taking risks in order to go beyond the easy certainties provided to us by our background, language, nationality, which so often shield us from the reality of others. It also means looking for and trying to uphold a single standard for human behavior when it comes to such matters as foreign and social policy. (page xiv)

My point would be that for the contemporary intellectual [or individual] living at a time that is already confused by the disappearance of what seem to have been objective moral norms and sensible authority, is it unacceptable simply either blindly to support the behavior of one’s own country and overlook its crimes or to say rather supinely “I believe they all do it, and that’s the way of the world?”

To speak consistently is upholding standards of international behavior and the support of human rights is not to look inwards for a guiding light supplied to one by inspiration or prophetic intuition. Most…countries in the world are signatories to a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted and proclaimed in 1948, reaffirmed by every new member state of the UN. There are equally solemn conventions on the rules of war, on treatment of prisoners, on the rights of workers, women, children, immigrants and refugees. None of these documents says anything about ‘disqualified’ or less equal races or peoples. All are entitled to the same freedoms. (page 97)

This exhibition, sadly participated in by Palestinians photographers themselves, further oppresses the Palestinian experience, because it reduces everything to merely violence and sensationalism. This is the legacy of wire photography, and of mainstream photojournalism that chases blood, celebrates murder, and titillates through the tragic.

At a time when more than ever we need to speak with courage and clarity at the systematic dispossession of what little has been left to this blighted people, we have photojournalists and curators participating in a project of silence and obfuscation.

“Beware The Cost Of War’ unfortunately attempts to balance what is so terribly imbalanced. And in that process it misleads. There is nothing to be gained by wringing our hands at the hideousness of blood and flesh torn by bombs. There is nothing to be understood by images of mothers crying. There is no value in the sight of another babies still body. To produce something that can really only provoke pity – a debilitating and cowardly emotion, is to produce nothing at all. (I am reminded of Nietzsche’s argument that… the thirst for pity is a thirst for self-enjoyment, and at the expense of one’s fellow men. It reveals man in the complete inconsideration of his most intimate dear self, but not precisely in his ‘stupidity’.)

As photographers we must demand that the text be returned to us who made the works. Our eye and our text is our intent, our ideas, our values and our risks. We must insist that our images not be exploited or left open to the random violence and fantasies of an indifferent and/or confused viewer. Context matters, history matters, and memory matters. We must insist that our words are not dismissed, that the intents with which we produced our images is not marginalized, and that our images do not become merely ‘illustrations’ but are clear statements of our work and our beliefs.

Our words anchor the image, and give it something that itself does not contain; meaning and intent. The caption is crucial because it is also the photographer’s insistence on controlling the use the image is put to, and to what extent it can be manipulated. In a world overrun with meaningless illustrations, the caption takes on even greater value. Context becomes a powerful weapon against propaganda and obfuscation. And a means towards clarity and understanding. We should not surrender or relinquish this right easily. In a conflict mired in millions of words of propaganda, from both sides of course but certainly largely from the mouths of the powerful who have an unbalanced access to mainstream print, internet, and tv media, the words of those who have witnessed first hand are paramount.

Epilogue: A few days ago a Swedish magazine invited me to publish my portraiture from Gaza in its pages. A highly respected publication, it offered me the choice to submit as many images as I liked, with just one condition – they would not use the words that accompanied the work. They only wanted the pictures. You can see this work, images with words, as it appeared in a recent issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review. I refused to let them publish the work, arguing that erasing the words reduced them to meaningless aesthetics, and silenced the voices of the individuals who sacrificed their time and patience in the most horrifying of conditions so that I may carry to the world their sufferings. As photographers we either forget, or prevented from being complete individuals; thinking, creative individuals with opinions, ideas and realizations. We must defend this completeness, and the sanctity of our individual experiences, understandings and conclusions.

Update: The No Captions Needed site, authored by two professors, one from Indiana University and the other from Northwestern University and described by them as ‘…a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society.” also discussed the ‘no caption’ approach at this exhibit which you can read here: Visual Ironies

Personal Note: This post was edited to ensure that it is understood that it does not claim that the curator(s) intended to oppress the voices or remove context, but simply that the current format inadvertently ends up doing that. This is a criticism of the format, not of the individuals involved, all of whom I am more than sure have the most determined and committed intentions to raise awareness of the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Pakistan In A Nutshell Or Examples in Failures Of The Imagination

In Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on October 22, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Pakistan Receives First of 18 Lockheed F-18C Fighter/Bombers for which it paid nearly $2,000,000,000.00

October 13, 2009 Air Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman of the Pakistan Air Force shows off the country's new toy

October 13, 2009 Air Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman of the Pakistan Air Force shows off the country's new toy

Woman & her 3 daughters commit suicide – cause: unbearable poverty

10-22-2009_51457_lThe article points out that “According to sources, Muhammad Sharif was a poor man and leading hand to mouth life with his spouse Zahida Bibi and three minor daughters while the couple would scuffle on an on due to poverty. Yesterday, Zahida Bibi together with her three minor girls committed suicide over being emotional by dint of poor living conditions, sources said.”

The relevance of a nation, the legitimacy of its government, the professionalism of its military and the allegiances of its elite are judged by the welfare of its weakest citizens. As this mother dies, her children with her, I question the relevance of the government, these deadly toys, the professionalism of the military and the allegiances of the elite.

Most post-colonial nations (and I mean most, not all) have chosen a path of purchased modernity - a propensity to believe that simply buying new toys, clothes, college degrees and properties in foreign lands would bestow upon us a European modernity. We are desperate to display it, mimic it, consume it and be equated as being modern. The mimicry of the material is balanced by a determined erasure of the human and the just. I believe that Europe herself has failed her own intellectual and philosophical legacy – as Frantz Fanon argued in his masterpiece The Wretched of the Earth:

Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe.

… but nevertheless, it is this legacy that is completely ignored by us. We want the toys, not the thoughts. I accept that we don’t know our own legacies of humanism, tolerance, justice, equality and service. After all, our education systems, particularly those provided to the elite, are principally Euro-centric, teaching us mostly European literature, arts, history, and else.

To be modern, as understood by our leaders, elites and the military, is to be materially rich in the products, behaviors, and tasts that mirror the European/West. Even our politics simply mirrors their priorities.

We are nations of small ambitions. As our citizens die death not worthy of dogs, as we ‘best’ and most educated, gloat about the opening of a new BMW dealership in Karachi, but remain silent in the face of real scandals that are occasionally printed on the back pages of local newspapers.

I wish for a day when a Pakistani government would collapse not because it was less willing to fleece its people or pander to imperialist interests, but because a mother and her 3 children were forced to kill themselves because of the negligence and indifference of a government that was supposed to protect them and their welfare.

The Wars On Our Frontiers Or Haven’t We Been Here Before?

In Journalism, Our Wars on October 20, 2009 at 12:56 pm

From Mother Jones magazine, October 2004, written by Malcolm Garcia


Kalooshah, South Waziristan, April 2004: Mir Abbas Khan sits outside the remains of his family home, destroyed by pakistan army bulldozers. The army has destroyed dozens of homes in this area of people it claims were harboring Al Qaeda fighters and collaborators. Many innocent civilians have been displaced and others have lost their homes, belongings and means of livelihood as a consequence. 2004 Copyright Asim Rafiqui Do Not Reproduce

Mir Abbas Khan stares into the camera. Behind him the ruins of his home lay strewn across the dry, hard ground. Since March, when Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Pakistan and promised President General Pervez Musharraf billions of dollars in aid, the Pakistani army has been scouring the semiautonomous tribal regions of South Waziristan for Al Qaeda fighters—bombing, burning, and bulldozing the homes and belongings of those deemed collaborators, or merely uncooperative.

Over the centuries, no one has exercised much authority over South Waziristan, a stark, mountainous area of southwestern Pakistan that borders Afghanistan. But in the wake of two assassination attempts, and in pursuit of continued U.S. largesse, Musharraf seems determined to try. At the start of the campaign, he announced that a senior Al Qaeda leader was surrounded, and hinted it might be Osama bin Laden. Days later, after the army met surprisingly stiff resistance, the top Al Qaeda operative was down-graded to a Chechen commander, and then to a local criminal. Eventually, senior government officials admitted they never had proof that a key terrorist was in the area. Though it boasts of killing hundreds of militants—claims that cannot be substantiated—the government is tight-lipped about casualties among innocent villagers.

Journalists and human rights workers are effectively barred from entering the region. But in April, photographer Asim Rafiqui managed to sneak in by posing as a local businessman. With no base of support in the area, the Pakistani army (mostly ethnically distinct from the Pashtuns of Waziristan) has been attempting to enlist the support of local tribes and battling those who don’t cooperate. Tribal jirgas, or councils, that comply with the army are rewarded with development aid and spared from bombardment. Other tribal leaders see the conflict as a means to turn the wrath of the army on rival tribes. In any case, lashkars—tribal posses—have ransacked scores of villages, vowing to capture or kill those suspected of cooperating with Al Qaeda. Tradition, however, forbids a host to turn over a guest to an enemy without a fight. And Waziris are even being asked to betray blood relations, although family ties extend far deeper than national loyalty.

In pitting his army against his people, Musharraf risks losing his tenuous hold on power by energizing the very Islamic fundamentalists he seeks to crush. Muslims consider soldiers killed in combat to be martyrs. But many of the tribesmen battling the army are former mujahideen, who, in the 1980s, were actively recruited by Pakistan and the United States to resist the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and support the Taliban. They came from all over Central Asia and settled in the tribal regions. They married, had children, and became woven into the local culture. To many Pakistanis, who don’t understand the about-face of the Musharraf government, it is not the soldiers who are martyrs, but the Waziris fighting them. “America is a wolf at our door,” said retired Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, a fundamentalist Muslim. “Pakistan throws it crumbs so it does not attack our house. South Waziristan is a crumb. But the people know defenders of the tribal areas are defending their country. Are they terrorists, and the attackers good boys? No. The people don’t believe this.”

Pakistanis are all too cognizant that it is at America’s bidding that Musharraf, his army, and the lashkars of Waziristan carry out this campaign. Any resentment it causes will inevitably flow back up that chain. Consider again Mir Abbas Khan, in the photo on the opposite page. Look at his eyes, his ruined home, and back to his eyes—full of fear and hurt, but mostly rage.

Accuser, Judge and Jury. We now are seeing the beginnings of such scenes

And there will be more, and far worse. Our parrots in the military and the political administration are not only repeating the language and obfuscations of the Americans, but the equally stupid and ‘blow-back-ready’ tactics as well. By the way, you would never know it, that there has been a sustained military occupation/presence and war against the people of the region of FATA since 2002. Our drone attacks in 2009 alone are interesting to observe, rising to levels of indiscriminate slaughter based on the statements of ‘officials’, all of whom seem to have direct telephone lines to the international media hungry for easy quotes and thought-closing statements.

The Pakistanis look on and wonder why bombs are going off in their cities. They rarely if ever wondered why bombs were falling indiscriminately on our citizens in FATA, how many were dying, who was being killed, and why. Our silences as they screamed are now being answered by our screams. These days of dishonor, these moments of dark horror, will yield only more pain, only more confusion, and only more suffering. And if they are not convinced, maybe what Asif Ali Zardari said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph:

“My position is that I have always asked for possession of the drone; I want the Pakistani flag on it.”

How much cash was needed to agree to slaughter civilians and Pakistani citizens for that bravado? I suppose there is no point in reminding him that they are citizens with rights, and that he is the representative of his citizens. Oh well, such niceties sound so naive.

The paymaster celebrate our ‘actions‘, the military leader grins and gloats as he receives American toys for the holiday season days before this latest ‘war’, and the nation’s sovereignty is offered up for a pocket full of change most of which will of course end up in the hands of the crooks now apparently sitting as ‘democrats’.

It has been our strategy to always replace a mess with an even larger one. President Obama, choosing only the finest and most intelligent people in his administration, is proceeding to repeat the same mistake. In a wonderfully amusing, but insightful, piece called Wall Street Smarts in the New York Times the poet Calvin Trillin argued that:

“The financial system nearly collapsed,” he said, “because smart guys had started working on Wall Street.”

In Errol Morris’ fear-inducing film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara he reminds us that the men who orchestrated, managed, administered and planned the Vietnam fiasco where the ‘smartest guys in the room’.  Robert S. McNamara “… graduated in 1937 from the University of California, Berkeley, with a Bachelor of Arts in economics with minors in mathematics and philosophy. He was a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity,[10] was elected to Phi Beta Kappa his sophomore year and earned a varsity letter in crew. He was also a member of the UC Berkeley Golden Bear Battalion, Army ROTC. He then earned a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration in 1939. After earning his MBA McNamara worked a year for the accounting firm Price Waterhouse in San Francisco. In August 1940 he returned to Harvard to teach in the Business School and became the highest paid and youngest Assistant Professor at that time.” (from Wikipedia)

In an earlier argument, Chris Hedges pointed out in an essay called The Best And The Brightest Led American Off The Cliff that:

The multiple failures that beset the country, from our mismanaged economy to our shredded constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the feet of our elite universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, along with most other elite schools, do a poor job educating students to think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, advanced placement classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools and blind deference to all authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers. The collapse of the country runs in a direct line from the manicured quadrangles and halls in places like Cambridge, Princeton and New Haven to the financial and political centers of power.

And President Obama now sits, like a god-king, asking his ‘best and the brightest’ to oversee an unfolding fiasco that is going to be Afghanistan and Pakistan. Enough with the intelligent, lets try the moronic. Could they do worse? I doubt it.

Paris Photo 2009:Be There For If You Are Not There…Er…You Are Not There!

In Photography, The Daily Discussion on October 20, 2009 at 11:57 am

Rio, Sans titre, 2008 © Mohamed Bourouissa, Courtesy Galerie Les filles du calvaire Paris/Bruxelles

Paris Photo, possibly one of the more important photography art fairs of the year, begins in Paris at the Carrousel du Louvre on November 18th 2009. This year’s focus is on what they claim to be ‘Arab‘ and ‘Iranian‘ photography. As always, I place such classifications in brackets because they, in our modern world of forced and chosen exiles, say little or nothing about the artists and their work.

Lens Culture magazine has an extensive slide show of some of the works featured.

America’s First Black President Wasn’t Barack Hussein Obama

In The Daily Discussion on October 18, 2009 at 7:38 pm

On Magic, Miracles And Photography Or Uncertainty And Creativity, Another Look

In Photography on October 13, 2009 at 8:49 pm

A small post some weeks ago provoked a series of diatribes and a healthy round of insults directed at me across the internet. Titled Why I Shoot Film And Why You Should Give A Damn it reflected the results of a very personal examination of my preference for shooting with film cameras, though I admitted that as a professional I must and do frequently use digital cameras for client work.

Paolo Roversi is a fashion photographer. His images lovingly tactile and in some cases surprisingly human.

I found him echoing some similar sentiments about the connection between uncertainty and creativity to what I had spoken about in my post, though he is far more eloquent and more stylish in his presence and delivery.

You can listen to it here, thanks to A Photo Editor

Guantanamo Detainee Fouad Mahmoud Al Rabiah’s Petition for Habeus Corpus Is Granted!

In Journalism, Our Wars on October 13, 2009 at 10:28 am

In a remarkable, courageous and honest ruling, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, found that the government could not credibly support its allegation that Fouad Mahmoud Al Rabiah was part of the Taliban or al-Qaida, and that the evidence against him wasn’t sufficient to justify his continued detention. She ordered the government to release Al Rabiah “forthwith [1].” The actual statement read as follows:

Because the Government has not met its burden by a preponderance of evidence, the Court shall GRANT Al Rabiah’s petition for habeas corpus. The Court shall issue an Order requiring the Government to take all necessary and appropriate steps to facilitate Al Rabiah’s release forthwith. Dated: September 17, 2009

That there are institutions, procedures and individuals that still respect the rule of law, and the necessity of upholding our most cherished legal, judicial and moral precepts particularly in moments of crisis and fear should give us hope for our increasingly decimated republic.

But whereas we can argue for the rights of illegal detainees held in the USA few if any for that matter have raised a voice in outrage at the wholesale slaughter of imagined ‘terrorists’, ‘Taliban’ and ‘Al Qaeda’ operatives in the tribal areas of Pakistan. I say imagined because they are labeled ‘Taliban’ and/or ‘Al Qaeda’ to ensure that we never ask for evidence or proof and that we can kill them at will.

There the Pushtuns, a people dehumanized so completely that we do not even register their deaths, are being killed and maimed with impunity, thanks to the venal machinations of the Pakistani elite and toy-hungry military in bed with an American imperialist juggernaut that knows nothing other than the inspirations of its own greed and power.

The people of Pakistan’s tribal areas deserve their day in court if they are being accused of specific crimes and misdemeanors. Though I do not know what these would be other than that dastardly crime of not bending to the will of specious power and elite greed. I have argued in an earlier piece called Fear The Pushtun Bogeyman Or Scaring Children As An Imperialist Habit for the necessity of protecting the lives, and access to procedures of law and justice for all citizens of Pakistan particularly the criminalized Pushtun tribes of the frontier.

The Pakistan Army, and its establishment civilian leaders, have carried out an unjust, illegal, immoral and inhumane war against its own people. The bombs that capture our attention are a consequence of a belief that disproportionate force can erase memory and sorrow. The United States of America has provided the funds and the armaments and the quiet pat on the back. The war on the frontier serves political interests both in the USA and in Pakistan, ensuring that fear of this bogeyman never leaves us, that we believe that our manicured front lawns are in fact under direct threat of crazed, wide-eyed, bearded men in loose pants with designs to subjugate all that we love and cherish (Wall Mart? 24-cable TV? Unlimited internet porn?) and control the world.

Illegal detainees are being given a chance to argue their case, to defend themselves, and a Government that illegally tortured and incarcerated them is being taken to task. Here in the USA. But in Pakistan, where our surrogates are happy to dance to any tune we play, the deaths continue, the horror unfolds. There are few voices in opposition. So I suppose they will only come in the form of bomb blasts and more ‘terror’ attacks. Sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind.