Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

Idea Of India Project Update: May 24th 2010 Gujarat’s Faded Testaments – The Parables Of Bet Dwarka

In The Idea Of India Project on May 24, 2010 at 7:24 pm

On any given day hundreds of Hindu pilgrims can be seen standing in the courtyard of Bet Dwarka’s famous Krishna temple. On the day of the annual festival, tens of thousands will congregate here. And on that special day, as on any ordinary day, the pilgrims would have been helped to cross the three kilometer stretch of the Arabian Sea that separates the island of Bet Dwarka from the Gujarati mainland by dozens of Muslim boat and ferry owners who are the predominate occupants of the four villages on the island.

There are many Sufi dargahs on the island, including the near 500-year old Syed Haji Ali Dawood Shah Kirmani, revered by both Hindus and Muslims who can be seen quietly offering their offerings and asking for blessings at the shrine at any hour of the day. In fact, there are over seven different Sufi dargahs scattered about the island, a number of madrassas to cater to the educational needs of the Muslims who live in the four main villages on the island.

The close relationships between the island’s Muslim and Hindu communities in fact reveal a blurring of religious and spiritual lines, reminding us of the artificiality of the labels of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ and the ordinary human being’s ability to find accommodation and tolerance of the practices and values of his neighbors. Perhaps its finest embodiment is the continued performance of music at the Krishna temple by Muslim musicians, including the famous Fakir Mohammed Alia Mir. The temple’s pujaris are often seen at the shrine of Syed Kirmani and will also participate in the tazia processions during Muharram.

The heat of the days, at times reaching 40 – 43 C (104 – 110 F) made it difficult to fully explore the island in the three days that I spent there. But I am determined to return and explore this unique island further. Many pointed to the villages on the far side of the island that they thought I should visit and meet with the people there. Here, in this rather remote corner of Gujarat, there remains a community of people who have resisted the temptations and seductions of the sectarian extremists. Recognizing their mutual dependence, for life, spirituality and survival, members of Bet Dwarka’s communities continue to find ways to overcome suspicion and the interferences of the ‘purists’.

Idea Of India Project Update: May 14th 2010 Gujarat’s Faded Testaments – The Sant Devidas Temple, Parab, Gujarat

In The Idea Of India Project on May 14, 2010 at 10:11 am

We hacked, we burnt, did a lot of that. We believe in setting them [Muslims] on fire because these bastards say they don’t want to be cremated, they’re afraid of it, they say this and that will happen to them.

Babu Bajrangi, VHP and Bajrang Dal leader, speaks about events in Naroda, Gujarat in 2002, Tehelka Video Confessions Transcripts

If you are not paying attention, or are merely distracted by the splendor and dominating size of the 600 hundred year old Sant Devidas mandir, you would miss a small structure sitting alongside it that is the dargah of the Sufi saint Sailani Pir. In this large temple complex, some 30 odd kilometers from Junagadh, in the city of Parab, lies this rare example of a single complex structure accommodating both Hindu and Muslim elements. There are two smaller shrines to two other Muslim saints, Dana Pir and Karmani Pir, at the same complex.

On this blistering hot May day hundreds of people are moving through the temple and completing their rituals by praying at the shrine of the Muslim saint. The story goes that Sailani Pir was a disciple of Devidas Bapu – a deity in the form of a living saint from the village of Mungyasar in the Amreli district. Sailani Pir and Devidas roamed the countryside together. Later Sailani Pir – a Hapsi i.e. of black, African origin, initiated his own ashram near the town of Rajkot, returning to Parab only after completing nearly twelve years of meditation.

Today the shrine to Sailani Pir is undergoing repairs and renovations. If there ever were domes and minarets around it – as we would expect in a tomb to a Muslim saint, they are gone. The new structure resembles and in fact mirrors the architecture of the Devidas mandir that dominates the compound. The workmen carefully apply plaster and paint to typical conical temple elements that now surround the tomb. The cool interior of the shrine however holds the grave, covered in typical green cloth and strewn with flowers. There was no mujawir (caretaker) to be seen, and most of the pilgrims – on this day at least most were Hindus, some from as far away as Ahmedabad on a pilgrimage tour towards Dwarka, quietly circumnavigate the tomb, bowing and kissing the grave as they exit the chamber.

J.J. Roy Burman, who has done extensive search on Gujarat’s shared sacred spaces, believes that few if any Muslims visit this complex anymore. On this day I too did not see any, though I did not actually inquire. I suppose it did not matter whether they came or not because the sites, one Hindu the other Muslim, remain side by side and welcome all.

The Sant Devidas mandir is that rare instance of a shared sacred space where both Hindus and Muslims can congregate, and seek spiritual salvation and solace. The shrine is being preserved and repaired and though may look increasingly like a Hindu mandir it remains the site and tomb of a Sufi Muslim mystic who found common ground with a Hindu deity and worked alongside him to spread the message of humanity and love.

Karl de Keyzer Travels To Congo And Finds A People, A History And Consequences

In The Daily Discussion on May 12, 2010 at 10:00 am

A surprising and exciting set of images from Karl de Keyzer, a photographer whose work has always challenged and fascinated me, particularly since he produced the wonderful God Inc. Now come a set of images of the Congo that are lovely for their sharp contrast to the conventional ‘dark Africa’ depictions of the pathologies and struggles there.

What I particularly love about this work is that it challenges you to examine the photographs and think about a country we know has suffered through decades of colonial exploitation, post-colonial wars, economic exploitation and the traps of the Cold War itself.

Here in de Keyzer’s photographs is a far more complex, but human story of a people living with consequences of politics, power, and trauma that continues to affect their lives and that they continue to struggle against and overcome. I am not sure how far de Keyzer will go with his work but these pictures suggest a photographer willing to confront the consequences on Congo’s modernity of a history that is not too far in the past and in fact is very much responsible for the current wars and deaths and bloodshed.

Connections, links, continuities and consequences are the new challenge for photographer. The use of photography to take us towards realizations of history, society, politics, power and exploitation. This work suggests possibilities of completeness and I look forward to seeing how far de Keyzer goes in the book that is soon to be published based on this set of images.

Idea Of India Project Update: May 11th 2010 Gujarat’s Faded Testaments – The Shrine Of Data Pir, Junagadh, Gujarat

In The Idea Of India Project on May 11, 2010 at 11:06 am

I don’t remember the names of those Muslims… but the ones who were there… they were handpicked and killed one by one. There was one Katki in Madhopura… whenever a riot took place, he was the first to come out… That day we targeted him and killed him. There were two advantages to that… it boosted the morale of the Hindus… and damaged the morale of the Muslims…

Confessions of Ramesh Dave, VHP activist, speaking about events during the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, Tehelka Video Confessions Transcripts

I am in Junagadh, Gujarat and at the shrine of Jamil Shah Data Pir, a site sacred to both the Hindu and Muslim communities of the region. The Pir’s connections and relations to the Hindus are enshrined in a local legends. At least one legend speaks of how the Saint initiated four Hindus as his disciples after they refused to follow the orders of a local Sidh Guru and kill one of the saint’s devotees. The four men were given charge of various localities in the region and became followers of the saint.

The shrine today is under the care and charge of Hindu mujawirs (caretakers) – Bhital Babu – a member of the Patel caste and of a family that has managed this shrine for generations, sits in a corner smoking his cigarettes watching the devotees without much interest.

As you walk up towards the shrine you comes across a number of other shrines and many overt signs of increased Hindu-ization of the various sites. The path leading up the hill takes you past the dargah of Chithria Pir, then to the shrine of Kashmiri Baba, then the dargah of Koel Vir (Koelavajir) which actually looks more like a temple and is cared for by a Marathi Hindu, then to the shrine of Hathi Patther, then the shrine of Shakkermouli with its well of sacred waters, and lastly past the dargah of Kamal Shah Baba before you arrive at the chilla (meditation cave) of Data Pir himself.

The steps also happen to be a popular make-out spot for young couples, dozens of whom can be seen, sitting amongst the shrubs and trees that line the steps, in deep embrace and stealing furtive kisses.

Interestingly, most every one I meet along the 3500 steps that take you to the top refers to the dargah of the Sufi saint as a mandir – a Hindu temple. And once you get to the actual shrine – located inside a mountainside cave, you are struck by its similarity to so many remote, mountainside Hindu shrines that dot India’s landscape. Here men sit on their knees, hands held in front of them, praying towards the alter, as small lamps provide the light and an ambiance of deep meditation. It hardly resembles a tomb to a Muslim saint.

The sacred waters here are said to cure the ill, and the paralytic, if they manage to climb up the hill, can learn to walk again if they are struck by a sacred stick kept within Data Pir’s cave – where he is said to have disappeared. People mill about the shrine every day, with thousands of all faiths arriving here during the annual urs and during Bij – the second day of each Gujarati month which is considered a sacred day.

I now begin a few weeks to documenting the state and remains of Gujuarat’s shared sacred spaces, representatives of a time of easy sharing and co-existence of faiths and today perhaps the last reminders of a shared social culture of Gujarat as it comes under assault of bigotry, religious obscurantism, political mendacity and, in no small measure, a minority’s reactionary retreat into separate ghettos of living, working and imagining.

The Idea Of India Project Update: May 9th 2010: The Ideological Shadows On Somnath

In The Idea Of India Project on May 9, 2010 at 7:15 am

Mahmud of Ghazni, a legendary looter, descended on Somnath from his Afghan kingdom and, after a two-day battle, took the town and the temple. Having stripped its fabulous wealth, he destroyed it. So began a pattern of Muslim desecration and Hindu rebuilding that continued for centuries. The temple was again razed in 1297, 1394, and finally in 1706 by Aurangzeb, the notorious Mughal fundamentalist.

India The Lonely Planet Guide 2008

Actually, it was not. In fact, there isn’t even evidence that it was really ever razed, but merely ransacked for its loot on at least one occasion. Aurengzeb’s orders were in fact never carried out. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Now, standing in front of the lovely temple of Somnath (no photography please, this is a sensitive site!) I find it hard to believe that it carries within it so many histories, overlapping and contradictory, and that is became the symbol not just of Muslim religious zealotry but also of a Hindu religious resistance and resilience. This beautiful temple on the thrashing shores of the Arabian Sea has become the central motif of a resurgent Hindutva movement and as it had earlier, when in the 1950s it was ceremoniously rebuilt, of Hindu Indian nationalism. In fact, the road to Ayodhya and the destruction of the Barbri mosque, began here in this small, otherwise nondescript town as L.K. Advani began a rath yatra from here to rally the people and spread the message of the powerful Hindu right movement.

As K.N. Panikkar points out in a piece called ‘The Hindutva Ride’ in India’s Frontline magazine:

The nationalism that the Ram Janmabhoomi movement invoked had greater salience with religion than with the nation. It was basically a strategy of religious mobilisation using Ram as a symbol to attract the allegiance of the believers to a political cause shrouded in religious garb. The Hindu consolidation such a mobilisation would entail was expected to ensure easy access to power. Only Ram had to be taken to the people couched in an emotional idiom, which the Sangh Parivar did through a variety of programmes associated with the construction of the temple at Ayodhya.

The most effective of them was the rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya led by Lal Krishna Advani. It was communal in conception, aggressive in execution and religious in appeal. As a result, violence erupted along the entire route of the yatra, in which several people were killed and injured.

I am in Somnath, and as I walk through the desperately poor Muslim neighborhoods, with their many small, decrepit mosques and shrines, that sit around the magnificent temple, I can’t help but wonder how what was once just another small temple on the western shores of Gujarat because the central, defining symbol to for medieval Islam, and in a counter-reaction, to modern Hinduism. This question I will explore in a further piece.

The story of Somnath is not as simple as that of Muslim destruction and Hindu reconstruction. It is far more interesting than that, and more subtle in its texture. It is the story of the explicit use of religion for political power and legitimacy and a determination to use ideas of religious service and duty to inspire peoples to support leaders. Whether Mahmud of Gazni or L.K. Advani, they both were inspired to surround the idea of Somnath with aims and aspirations political. And in the process they erased the actually history not just of the region, but of the incredibly complex and involved social and economic history of Gujarat that linked it closely through trade and exchange with the Arab Gulf.

The temple was attacked and ransacked. That cannot be denied. But not for reasons we think. and never for intentions we now bestow.

Digressions On Photojournalism Or Why I Argue What I Argue

In Journalism, Photography, The Daily Discussion on May 5, 2010 at 9:16 am

the plain reportorial style coerces history, process, knowledge itself into mere events being observed. Out of this style has grown the eye-witness, seemingly opinion-less politics – along with its strength and weakness – of contemporary Western journalism. When they are on the rampage, you show Asiatic and African mobs rampaging; an obviously disturbing scene presented by an obviously concerned reporter who is beyond Left piety or right-wing cant. But are such events events only when they are show through the eyes of the decent reporter? Must we inevitably forget the complex reality that produced the event just so that we can experience concern at mob violence? Is there to be no remarking of the power that put the reporter or analyst there in the first place and made it possible to represent the world as a function of comfortable concern? Is it not intrinsically the case that such a style is far more insidiously unfair, so much more subtly dissembling of its affiliations with power, than any avowedly political rhetoric?

Edward Said on George Orwell, “Tourism
Among The Dogs”, Reflections On Exile, Page 97

This is an essay about photography and photojournalism. It will, for the most part, not sound like an essay about photojournalism but I ask for your patience and a moment of close reading.

I write it because some of you have asked that I elaborate on my concerns and discuss the underlying issues that bother me about how photographers cover ‘the other’, particularly the African and Asiatic other. Most recently I wrote a criticism of the work of photographer Marco Vernaschi and his attempts to say something about the issue of child sacrifice in Uganda. I was disappointed with his approach and in fact argued that it not only damaged his ability to tell us the story, but also his ability to inspire us to help do something about it.


I have frequently written about and questioned the very ethics of the industry that we work in – see How To Take Photos Of Africa Or Where Intent And Ideas Collide, and Staying Faithful To The Totality Of Experience Or New Frontiers In Photography, and Creating Tempests In A Teapot Or What Else Can A Photo Editor To Do and Only Interesting If Its Madness to suggest a few. There are longer discussions with colleagues in pieces like To See Or Hear An Haitian Once The Party Has Died Down or even the long-winded What Ails Photojournalism Part I & Part II & Part III & Part IV (Hey, I said it was long-winded!!) For the most part these essays are self questioning discussions, as much dialogues with myself as they are discussions with peers.

This morning while working on an entirely different set of writings, something occurred to me. I realized that I have never really explained my concerns with a concrete idea of what inspires them. And frankly I suspect this is because there are no concrete ideas but just a broad set of personal values and prejudices.

Let me begin by something that the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, a woman whose words and ideas have had a tremendous influence on me, said in her book Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform In Liberal Education.

She argued that there are three capacities ‘…essential to the cultivation of humanity in today’s world.’ And what are these three capacities? From Page 9 & 10 of Cultivating Humanity they are:

  1. To have ‘…the capacity for critical examination of oneself and one’s traditions – for living what, following Socrates, we may call “the examined life.”‘

  2. To develop ‘…the ability to see [oneself] not simply as citizens of some local regions or groups but also and above all, as human beings bound to all other human beings by ties of recognition and concern.’

  3. To possess ‘…a narrative imagination…[i.e.] the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have.’

Why does this matter?

It matters because it is this cultivation that allows a photographer to enter regions of the world that have historically been denied an equal humanity, and produce works that inform, illuminate and inspire rather than exploit, repress and marginalize.
We still live in a world that denies peoples of the so-called ‘Third World’ their voice in their own fates and lives, and classical photojournalism (photographers and photo editors) has very much been part of this process. It is a fallacy if not an outright naive delusion to believe that issues of imbalances of power, wealth, justice, economic dependency, and even social hierarchy no longer exist just because we declared the world and its nations ‘liberated’. These hierarchies of power are every where to be seen, our hands in its maintenance and manipulation as plain as day. If there is war in Africa, it is not only because Africans only know how to conduct war, but that there remain political, economic and imperial interest that encourage these wars through treaties, arms sales and geo-political machinations that ensure that our ‘interests’ in the region are protected and enhanced. Lets not forget the Cold War was certainly not very cold for Africans who died in the millions to sustain it.

A cultivation of a narrative imagination is essential for moving past documenting pathos and helplessness, to see past victims and dependents, and see the humanity and individual autonomy of even the most seemingly desperate of peoples. This for me is the next great adventure in photojournalism. A sustained, humane voice that brings ‘the other’ into our lives as an equal to ourselves, with ideas and aspirations, and solutions and agency, inviting us to collaborate, and not begging us to save.

The cultivation of a narrative imagination then offers a clue to where to begin and produce a new generation of works of photography and journalism; complex, engaged, and communicative of another’s experiences, challenges and agency. It enables us to ask a whole new set of questions about societies and worlds we may have previously taken for granted. It offers a chance to create works that are in fact collaborative – an idea that is frequently scorned upon by our craft. And finally, works that can create bridges between us here and them there, helping us see how we relate, and more importantly how we can collaborate and participate.

There is just too much repetition and mimicry in photojournalism. Even Stephen Mayes of World Press Photo and the VII agency was forced to admit it, and I had already stated it some months earlier. In a piece I wrote called The Limits Of Photojournalism And Things More Worthwhile I wrote that:

And so much of today’s photojournalism is mere clutter.  Illustrations really, not illuminations.  We no longer seem to know the difference.  We no longer appear prepared to go beyond the picture and to reveal the more complex political, economic, social and historical issues at stake.  Perhaps worse, there is something rather close to middle class voyeurism in what passes for essential photojournalism.  This is perhaps a little examined subject when it comes to the field of photojournalism i.e. the class divisions between those who make the pictures and those who become the subjects and how it influences what, who and how we represent.

A brief perusal of the kinds of subject matter that is recognized as ‘photojournalism’ or ‘documentary photography’ reveals this bias;  drug addicts (anywhere), transvestites (anywhere, but especially in Asia), prostitutes (anywhere, but especially in Asia), drugs and drunks in Russia, street children, the mentally ill (like shooting fish in a bowl!), strip clubs/strippers, prisons, the physically handicapped, hungry/pleading Africans, crazy/blood thirsty Africans, exotic ritual/false exotic culture stories that offer us the ‘other’ as primitive etc.  All subjects popular with young photographers, grant committees, and photojournalism education institutes shoving students out towards the ‘downtrodden’ neighborhoods to find their stories. All about communities that can ‘shock’ middle class sensibilities and offer us a mean to sneer, pity, or simply express remorse.

And what is insidious about these formulas is their determined erasure of the voices of the those represented. We must not forget that representing the other as ‘helpless’ or ‘hopeless’ is a choice that ignores their agency and individual autonomy. It matters not that they are in a refugee camp, or a slum in a metropolis.

It is in the end about the difference between simply documenting preconceived ideas and prepared stories, thereby allowing technique to overcome discovery, or to confronting the subject as a complete voice and finding the ‘narrative imagination’ to collaborate and produce the story such that it offers genuine insights and elaborations while never transgressing human dignity and compassion.

Helen Epstein, captured this in a recent piece called Cruel Ethiopia she wrote for the New York Review Of Books on the state of humanitarian aid and Ethiopia where despite a rapidly rising aid budget,hunger continues to grow. The following lines struck a chord:

There is no simple solution to this crisis, but as the Ethiopia expert Siegfried Pausewang has long argued, only the peasants themselves have any hope of finding one. Working with agronomists and other experts, they could confront such issues as security of land tenure, the onerous rural tax regime, political favoritism, the low prices offered by party-run cooperatives, and compensation for those whose tiny land parcels can no longer support them. However, there are no independent organizations or other forums in which peasants can openly discuss these issues, air grievances, or advocate for their rights. Under the CSO law such forums are unlikely
to emerge.

Helen Epstein,Cruel Ethiopia’, New York Review of Books 20th April 2010

The subject of our attention are silenced if not completely dehumanized. And it is a silencing that we as photographers are very familiar with. Particularly as more and more of us find ways of working with NGOs and humanitarian organizations that use photographers, and ‘concerned’ photography, to argue for the necessity of their services, and the need for donor funding. Here it is ‘concerned’ photography at the service of a humanitarian organization’s organizational and administrative agenda and goes a long way towards silencing, if not completely erasing, the ‘subjects’ as people and as fundamental.

Too many photojournalists and photo editors assume that the only posture to adopt towards stories of famine, disease, social pathologies, poverty etc. is the one of a ‘messiah’ – a messenger and savior ‘revealing’ the sufferings of others and thereby turning the ‘spotlight’ of change and rescue towards the lives of the helpless. Too many assume that simply ‘documenting’ is enough, paying scant attention to how their method, approach, posture and representation in fact do precisely the opposite of drawing attention and initiating action. Too many avoid speaking of the fact that the need to ‘package’ a story to fit into the  requirements of a daily or weekly publication is what drives how they produce the story, and the need to give the publication meaning and relevance (sales and advertising) determines how much they garland it with sweeping moral and humanitarian intentions.

This was brutally evident in a ‘defense’ of photojournalism written by Eliane Laffont – a piece of writing so mired in its self-congratulatory convictions that I still do not quite know how best to confront it. But it carried within the very issues of power and social hierarchy that I am talking about; we document, we reveal and we save. The ‘heroes of our age’ are god-like figures, veritable messiahs, that trawl the dark spaces of the world to save it from itself, for otherwise there would be chaos, madness and anarchy. We edit, we publish, we photograph and hence we give voice and meaning to the lives of ‘others. That a terribly simplistic causality – picture made, people saved, was on offer in this piece is not even worth commenting about since it can’t even be supported by even the more specious of facts. A photograph taken in 1968 may have ‘shocked’ America at the real politics and callous political calculations that lie beneath the constructions of her ‘purity’ and ‘honor’, but it could not stop a war that lasted until 1975 and saw many more millions die.

To say nothing of the sheer hubris, arrogance and simple hideousness of a statement that erases the sacrifices, deaths, struggles, and sheer human determination of the millions of Vietnamese who actually fought, and died in that war and defeated the United States of America on her own terns. No Ms. Laffont, it was not a picture that moved us ‘good’ people to stop the war. It was something far simpler. It was courage, determination, sacrifice, belief, the undying thirst for liberation and dignity, and unimaginable suffering and horror of nearly three and a half million dead (that is 3,500,000 if you can imagine it!) Asiatic people – a people you still refuse to ‘see’ and ‘accept’ as agents of their own destiny and equal to your idea of yourself, that ended this war.

Perhaps along with a narrative imagination, humility too would go a long way. But that is a different topic.

Too many editors and photojournalists exacerbate the divide between us, civilized and polished, here, and them, barbaric and pathetic, there and offer no bridge, no path, across this divide to where the viewer can take action. Too many erase the other, completely wiping away the fact that genuine change and the most effective transformations, are being planned and executed in the very nations we think we are ‘saving’. Too much is then left to ‘charity’ – an act of considerable irresponsibility that sees a complex social, political, economic and human problems as merely an issue of ‘money’ and one where our role is merely to ‘give’, and not to ask, intervene, question and act.

This posture has to change for it veils within it the possession of power over the subject, and the ability to contort their lives into the story we seek. It reflects, without admitting, the advantage we posses in just being there to ‘document’ their lives and ‘tell’ their stories as we see fit. It simply leaves them as objects of our actions, and rarely allows for their worlds, voices, insights and ideas to intervene into ours. One just has to look at the depiction of the Afghans, or the Iraqis, two people whose lives have been turned upside down because of our ‘involvement’ in their worlds and yet remain largely unknown, unheard, and unseen even when we try to know, hear and see them. And when we do ‘see’ them, they are revealed to us as isolated pathologies, with social and cultural deviances that are in some fashion used to further justify our ‘presence’ (an euphemism for occupation) of their lands and lives. Or worse, their apparent barbarism e.g the now tiresomely hypocritical calls for the liberation of Afghani women that are used to deflect criticism and silence moral outrage at our own barbarism e.g the mass killings and institutionalized torture of civilians.

This is a dead-end.

In a world suffuse with images and magazines drawing in sophisticated advertising and punditry, such images are of course rarely if ever seen, and no more effective than simply getting the reader to turn the page quicker. This is not about ‘compassion fatigue’, a completely specious phenomenon concocted by mainstream journalism editors to explain their own fatigue with a story once its novelty has worn off, but about a sense of hopelessness and inaction induced in the viewer. The fact remains that if you simply offer me the option of ‘charity’ and suggest a middle-man with his hand sticking out where that ‘charity’ can be deposited, I will walk away because I will become convinced that I am being fleeced.

The world is far more sophisticated, more complex and more interesting than this. Even Africa.

We often seem to forget that when we walk into ‘The Third World’ we walk into a region with a history – and a very specific kind of history too, which left a very specific set of scars and pathologies on the people of the regions. And that continues to play itself out even today. Nowhere is this history more absent than in stories about the Congo, or Chad for example where many a tentacle from ‘us’ to ‘them’ is carefully excised in the depictions of the conflicts there.

There is no point skirting this issue; the impact of colonialism, and anti-colonial nationalism has deeply damaged nations, and continues to affect their societies, cultures and politics today. This is not to ascertain blame but to reveal a reality that is largely missing when it comes to reportage about Africa in particular. We seem to forget that not only are most of Africa’s nations relatively recent concoctions, but that we (and here I speak as a member of The West) continue to remain engaged and continue influence issues in the region.

But let me use Edward Said again to elaborate, as he so cogently and simply did in an essay from his work Reflections On Exile:

There was, however, a continuing colonial presence of Western powers in various parts of Africa and Asia, many of whose territories had largely attained independence in the period around WWII. Thus ‘the colonized’  was not a historical group that had won national sovereignty and was therefore disbanded, but a category that included the inhabitants of newly independent states as well as subject peoples in adjacent territories still settled by Europeans. Racism remained an important force with murderous effects in ugly colonial wars and rigidly unyielding politics. The experience of being colonized therefore signified a great deal to regions and peoples of the world whose experience as dependents, subalterns, and subjects of the West did not end – to paraphrase from Fanon – when the last white policemen left and the last European flag came down. To have been colonized was a fate with lasting, indeed grotesquely unfair results, especially after national independence had been achieved. Poverty, dependency,under-development, various pathologies of power and corruption, plus of course notable achievements in war, literacy, economic development: this mix of characteristics designated the colonized people who had freed themselves on one level but who remained victims of their past on another.

Around the colonized there has grown a whole vocabulary of phrases, each in its own way reinforcing the dreadful secondariness of people who, in V.S. Naipaul’s derisive characterization, are condemned only to use a telephone, never to invent it. Thus the status of colonized people has been fixed in zones of dependency and peripherality, stigmatized in the designation of underdeveloped, less-developed, developing states, ruled by a superior, developed, or metropolitan colonized who was theoretically posited as a categorically antithetical overlord.…Thus to be one of the colonized is potentially to be a great many different, but inferior, things, in many different places, at many different times.

Edward Said, ‘Representing The Colonized:Anthropology’s Interlocutors’,

Reflections On Exile, Page 294 & 295

Dependency. Peripherality. Underdevelopment. Inferior.

These continuities of history, continuities to which we in the West have a deep involvement and influence, define so many of the ‘rampages’ we reveal the African and Asians when the rampage. To understand the meaning of this history, and its role in the telling of stories of today, is where a narrative imagination comes into play. This is not about making excuses, it is about being complete, honest and clear. To ‘disconnect’ and package a ‘rampage’ as a ‘rampage’ is a construction and a determined effort to disconnect the continuities of history, society, and politics that informs it. By avoiding these disconnections we can begin to move away from representing ‘the other’ as a pathology, as a ’cause celebre’ and reveal them as autonomous, individual human beings confronting forces of political and social upheaval and doing so in the face of vast obstacles and challenges.

But before I am accused of naivety let me state that I am aware that these continuities are uncomfortable, and that most if not all publications and editor abhor them. I faced this reality when writer Malcolm Garcia and I tried to present our work from Haiti to American publications. What offended the sensibilities of the editors the most was that we implicated the USA and France in the violence and chaos that was unfolding in the country in the aftermath of the removal of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. They wanted isolation, pathology and ‘rampaging’ Haitian and black people. They couldn’t accept complexity and a reality that suggested that we are involved, that we have ‘interests’ and that we are something other than a force of ‘moral’ good and ‘prophetic’ honor there.

Photojournalism (photographers and photo editors) has been oddly immune to transformations that have affected other fields. The subaltern has spoken, in a language of his/her own, and can finally be heard. An entire literature has broken through from world’s previously silent. New histories are being revealed, and counter narratives to debilitating colonial histories being offered. The voice of the marginalized now reside alongside those once considered the ‘canon’ and do so by integration and expanding out understanding of our own pluralist heritage and history. In American alone the voices of women, African Americans, the indigenous and so many others can no longer be ignored and have enhanced and illuminated our understanding of ourselves and the experiences of history.

My personal experiences with the Oglala-Sioux tribe in the USA and their continued struggle to articulate their history, their deep sense of being wronged by America, and their struggle to find new honor and dignity were humbling experiences. And yet they continue to be documented as drug addicts, alcoholics and marginalized losers, without the least effort to place their marginalization in the context of a broader American political and paranoid policy that has left them where they are. There is a reason why there are no public bus services in a reservation. Dare we ask why?

The changes that have taken place in so many other fields seem largely absent from the craft of mainstream photojournalism which still remains largely about silencing the other, and reconstructing their worlds and lives as defined by pathos, victimhood and hopelessness. Photographers still transgress into the worlds ‘other’ with an impunity and indifference that can leave one shocked if not outright dismayed. They return with stories right out the works of Joseph Conrad, revealing the ‘darkest’ Africa, the direst of Asiatic ‘despotisms’. And unlike other fields – literature, arts, politics, there seem to be few if any Aime Cesaire’s in photography i.e. counter voices that challenge these simplistic representations. And if they are, then they fail to make it to the pages of our finest magazines or the podium of our finest awards.

As a result too many young photographers and photo editors continue to mimic the narrative structures absorbed from a previous generation of photographic masters of Europe and USA. Too many rush to adopt the aesthetics – both visual and narrative that they see on the pages of magazines, in exhibitions or being celebrated in Amsterdam.

And before someone misunderstands what I am saying, I will say that this is not about where you come from. It’s about how you think. This is not about being an European or Anglo-Saxon vs. being indigenous as if somehow only the local can have the ‘right’ or appropriate knowledge and willingness of complex engagement. The phenomenon we as photographers and photo editors document are secular, and worldly. They are available, through compassion and engagement, available to all. I reject the belief that only the indigenous can document the indigenous or some other such exclusivist idea.

This was amply evident during a workshop I and Sara Terry taught in Ajmer, India in 2009  where a group of young American students, most all in India for the first time, were able to produce some beautiful, human, complex and compassionate stories. And they did so only because we discussed and prioritized producing such stories. Ironically in a recent workshop in India composed of only Indian students, I had to struggle to get them to not return to conventional subject matter (poverty, mental asylums, etc.) and to think beyond the formalism of the craft that they had imbibed by studying too many weekly American magazines.

No, this is not about who you are or where you come from. It is always only about how you think and what ideas, readings, insights and sensitivities that allow you to think in new and compelling ways.

I wish that I could have been more articulate, but I hope that this is a start. I will probably re-write this piece, correct pointless digressions, and silly mistakes. I write this from the road where I am continuing my work on India – a project that was in fact inspired by a desire to produce a new kind of work, and photograph in a new kind of way. I can’t say that I will succeed, as I can’t say that this essay will elaborate, but I can definitely say that I am trying.