ExperimentalExperience

The Spotlight Of Humanity Or How We Are Told To Look Only Where They Tell Us To Look

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, Photography on July 30, 2010 at 10:00 am

It is probably one of the most blatant uses of photography as propaganda that I have seen in a long time. And I am glad for it because it reveals explicitly how easily images can be put to the service of an agenda of power and entrenched interests. And how easily photographs can mislead if not ‘read’ carefully.

‘What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan’ the cover screams. The answer is made obvious. The shocking photograph closes the mind, numbs thought, distracts insight and silences protest.

If it were only so simple. If we were only so easily fooled.

(Just a few days ago I wrote a post complaining that the Afghani and Iraqi have been completely erased from our media and from the interests of photojournalists. So the irony of this cover is not lost on me!)

Jodi Bieber’s (a photographer whose work I love!) portraits of Afghani women victims of domestic/family violence have been mutilated into a self-righteous and frankly hypocritical call to support an American military occupation that is increasingly brutal, murderous and simply untenable. I have to believe given Bieber’s intelligence that she was not aware of how this work would finally be put to use.

The timing of this cover, its hysterically comical association of continued war and Afghan women’s rights are not coincidental. That people still employ this infantile and inane justification for our imperial dreams tells me more about the world of the editorial community running these magazines then it does about anything going on in Afghanistan or in the lives of these women they so seem to be concerned about. With no real reasons for our war there, with no rational arguments for our continued presence there, with no explanations for our continued killings and torture of the civilians there, with no real idea of the goals of our military and advisors there, we can always turn what is nothing more than a sordid and poorly managed military occupation of an increasingly restless and violently resistant population into a feminist exercise.

Yes, its American imperial power in the service of the woman!

That seemingly intelligent people (I am giving the Editors of the magazine the benefit of the doubt here!) will offer us these empty bromides, these false and frankly insulting arguments about their deep concern and love of the Afghan woman’s freedom, begs the question ‘How stupid do they think we are?’

In fact, so blatant was the propaganda aspect of this photo essay that the Managing Editor had to give a separate explanation in the same magazine to explain the editorial decision and the choice of the cover. To cover his tracks I suppose. And I quote:

I thought long and hard about whether to put this image on the cover of TIME. First, I wanted to make sure of Aisha’s safety and that she understood what it would mean to be on the cover. She knows that she will become a symbol of the price Afghan women have had to pay for the repressive ideology of the Taliban.

The compassion and humanity flow from the page. With that sweeping and entirely wrong summary, he goes on to drop the other shoe:

We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground…What you see in these pictures and our story is something that you cannot find in those 91,000 documents: a combination of emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land and the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead.

This statement is disingenuous and misleading. What is actually going on the ground is that a war effort has lost its course, that civilians are being killed, that torture is standard operating procedure, that corrupt and brutal warlords lord over an oppressed population, that an illegitimate government has been foisted onto the country, that heroin remains its largest export and the brother of the so-called ‘leader’ its largest beneficiary. What is also left unsaid is why Aisha’s picture on the cover, and not one of the many women (men and children) maimed, crippled and killed under US/NATO bombs and assaults?

What about this picture?

Fazel Muhamad Fazel Muhamad, 48, holding pictures of family members who were killed in the attack. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Fazel Muhamad Fazel Muhamad, 48, holding pictures of family members who were amongst nearly a 100 people killed in a NATO airstrike aimed at a few alleged Taliban fighters. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Obviously the Taliban are not the only ones exploiting Afghani women and turning them into pawns in the service of larger political objectives. A circumcised humanity is no humanity at all. A carefully demarcated outrage, a walled-off moral indignation is nothing but hypocrisy. There are many injustices and acts of violence and brutality taking place in Afghanistan and being done so under our watch. Everyone knows this. Few will simply admit it. This magazine too knows it, but it chooses to offer us a selected outrage, an easily exploited and manufactured ‘injustice.

Its silence about people suffering under our presence, the injustices being committed by us and our allies, and the many dead that keep littering the already blood soaked soil of this blighted nation, is dismaying never more so when it decided to take this immature and inane stance on its covers.

Fortunately others have already caught on to this cheap game. Many have already voiced their outrage, including The Feminist Peace Network which released a statement in protest and concluded by saying:

Imagine instead of contributing to the violence in Afghanistan that further harms women, we were to provide humanitarian aid that improved the lives of Afghan women. Imagine if we had taken the billions of ‘reconstruction’ funds that are unaccounted for in Iraq and given that money to responsible organizations to actually rebuild and strengthen the social infrastructure of both countries. Oh wait, then we couldn’t use the women excuse to continue to fund the military industrial complex. Enough already, women are not an excuse for militarism and war.

Others have also spoken out including A Developing Story:Time, Photography, Propaganda?, and BagNewsNotes: Your Turn: What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan?Try…What’s Happening On This Cover? and Conscientious: Afghanistan, Women and War, and Jezebel: A Visual Introduction To An Afghan Woman’s Mutilation, and The Nation: What Also Happens If We Leave Afghanistan, and I am sure there will be others to come.

So here is mine.

A close examination of the subjects of the photographs and the associated captions provides some interesting insights. If one was hoping to view the series of photographs and come away with a sense of the cruelties of the Taliban, then one is left deeply disappointed. Not a single victim portrayed in the photo essay is a victim of Taliban violence. She is a victim of domestic violence, or family abuse, or even cultural negligence and disregard. But none of the victims can specifically be suggested to have suffered from an act unique to the ideology of the Taliban. In this regard the photo essay is a careful sleight of hand because its title “Women Of Afghanistan: Living Under The Threat Of The Taliban” clearly suggests that we are seeing examples of Taliban cruelty and inhumanity.

But the captions betray and tell us otherwise.

What they reveal is that nine years after we occupied this country and took over either directly or indirectly control of its legal, police, and various social institutions, women continue to suffer and that brutal, dehumanizing social and familial practices continue unabated. Lets remember, the Taliban no longer rule there, but we do.

But lets take a closer look at the images and their captions to see the ‘atmosphere’ and ‘references’ offered to help make the case of Taliban brutality.

The first four of five set of images keep referring to ‘parliamentarians’ or ‘the parliament’, ignoring the fact that what is in place at the moment is a completely illegitimate government that sits on the seats of power on the basis of an election so corrupt that its UN administrators had to resign in protest. It is a ‘parliament’ of warlords and killers and the token woman, run by a man who has no credibility, and whose brother happens to be the largest drug baron in the country. It is a parliament that was ‘created’ on the basis of fraud, and is maintained on the basis of American/NATO soldiers. But you would not know this from the words on offer in the captions.

And ironically, the editors at the magazine failed to edit Fawzia Koofi’s (the woman in the first image) comment that she ‘…fears that new election rules may make it more difficult to succeed. She fears that outspoken women like her will be sidelined.” This fear is a fear of the American backed regime that is currently in power – of Karzai’s corruption and illegitimacy. Both the fraudulent parliament, and the constrained on democracy being created are not Taliban pathologies clearly, but of our own allies!

The next of set of images moves us towards women that we are expected to associated as abused and victims of violence of the Taliban. But in fact their details further say nothing of the sort! Sakina (image 6) is a victim of the practice of child marriage, and well known Afghani tribal practice that people (Afghani and others) have been trying to address for generations. Sakina is abused by her husband and is a clear victim of domestic abuse and violence. There is no Taliban connection here. Islam (image 7), is also clear victim of a hideous family abuse and domestic violence. A cruel mother-in-law (aren’t they all!), an abusive and deranged husband. The portrait of the two prisoners (image 8), Nasimgul and Gul Barar, tells us that they are prisoners, but does not tell us why. What is their crime? What were they convicted of? And they are prisoners under the Karzai regime, so where is the Taliban connection? Image 9 is of Shireen Gul, who was forced into crime by her husband and later jailed. Her husband and his relatives were hanged for their crimes! Once again, there is no suggestion here of a Taliban threat, merely of criminality and a legal system that seems to love capital punishment. The Texans must be happy. Image 10 takes us to Zohal Sagar, a young girl who lost her parents in ‘the war’. What war? Which conflict? Afghanistan has been at perpetual war for decades, even before the Soviet invasion? What is this caption talking about? The next image has the Abadini family, the woman photographed in a burqa. The burqa is not a Taliban innovation, though they perfected its consistent use and abuse. Its a dress used and worn in the region well before the Taliban. But we are again not revealing any specific issue related to the Taliban or a unique pathology that their ideology offers. The picture is of a conventional Afghan woman as millions would dress even before the Taliban. It a picture of a cultural issue.

And finally, the finale; the final image of a woman called ‘Aisha’ and the image the magazine’s editor chose – because shock always has the effect of stunting thought and numbing analysis. What does one say when confronted with such cruelty towards anyone, let alone a woman. Nothing. And that is precisely what this image is meant to do – silence us into submission. And since this is the most moving and disturbing of images, and the one most egregious and callously exploited by this magazine, let me say more about my point here.

Lets remember; it is the USA/NATO that is in power in Afghanistan, not the Taliban. The abuse that Aisha faced, abuse at the hands of her husband and her husband’s family that can be carried out with impunity after nine years of an American presence and an American/NATO foisted ‘government’ in the country. As the organization Women For Afghan Women In Afghanistan tell us that:

[Aisha]…was sold at the age of 10 by her father to a married man, a Talib. He kept her in the stable with the animals until she was 12 (when she got her first menstrual period). At the age of 12 he married her. From the day that she arrived in his house, she was beaten regularly by this man and his family. Sometimes she was beaten so badly that she couldn’t get up for days. Six months ago before she came to us, she was beaten so badly by her husband that she thought that she was going to die. She ran away and went to the neighbor’s house. The neighbor took to her to the police.

What happened to her is cruel and inhuman. But it is not unique to Afghanistan, nor to the Taliban. She is abused by ‘a Talib’ but is that his principal trait? Is that all that mattered about him that he was religiously conservative? Are we to believe that there is a direct link between his religious orthodoxy and his violent propensities? That would be what is being suggested here of course. And it can be suggested here because he is a Muslim. Not an individual with a history, with pathologies, with a history worthy of exploring in specifics. Her husband carried out these brutalities, and whereas he may have been delusional, violent, depraved, fundamentalist or whatever, he was not ‘the Taliban’. These remain individual, local acts of violence against women, and this is not news in Afghanistan nor in other countries in the region. This is not the pathology of a political creed, but the pathology of an individual, a family and possibly a broader society that tolerated this. It came first from within – the family, and then was sanctioned from without.

What we are confronting here is a socio-cultural pathology and one that has many manifestations that go beyond disfigurement. Aisha does not represents a consequence outcome unique a Taliban pathology, but is one of thousands of women who are confronted with violence and abuse and repression in the country and have for decades. By our modern standards of equality and universal justice, the condition of Afghani women is an issue of concern and it has been the focus of concern and action for activist both domestic and international for decades. But the causes are socio-economic and cultural to say nothing of the blatant use of an issue irrelevant to our reasons for being the country in the first place.

There is an attempt here to confuse us – all violence, pathologies, and decadence is ‘The Taliban’ and hence fundamentalist Islam. The fearsome bogeyman at the back of racist campaigns such as this one. And all things civilized and chivalrous are and can only be ‘Western/American’ and hence ‘modern’. A classical colonialist’s magic trick; we own all that is good, you are all that is backward and retrograde. But the issues surrounding the abuse and violence against women, as in any country, are far more complex than an imagined homogenous and well understood entity called ‘the Taliban’, a title that today has no more meaning than ‘the bad guys’. Simplifications of this sort are all the rage these days, so much so that Pankaj Mishra had to call them out in a recent article in The New Yorker called Islamismism by pointing out that:

The sad truth is that the problems [blamed] on Islam—fear of sexuality, oppression of women, militant millenarianism—are to be found wherever traditionalist peoples confront the transition to an individualistic urban culture of modernity. Many more young women are killed in India for failing to bring sufficient dowry than perish in “honor killings” across the Muslim world. Such social pathologies no more reveal the barbaric core of Hinduism or Islam than domestic violence in Europe and America defines the moral essence of Christianity or the Enlightenment.

The photo essay misleads us into believing that we are reading and witnessing victims of a uniquely pathological movement called the Taliban – who conveniently happen to be our chosen ‘enemy’ of the moment, while in fact it offers us individuals who have suffered egregiously at the hands of family and relatives. As do hundreds of thousands of women across the region, and millions more across the globe. It confuses the pathologies of patriarchy for a religion and for a religio-political movement. The magazine through a cruel sleight of hand, has exploited these women’s trauma and suffering for an ideological, imperialist and domestic policy agenda. And in the process exploited these women and their histories for propaganda purposes.

Violence against women remains a concern across the globe, but here, on this cover, it is transformed into something unique, specific and as a justification for war. In an opinion piece in the New York Times, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum in an article titled Veiled Threats pointed out that:

According to the U. S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, intimate partner violence made up 20 percentof all nonfatal violent crime experienced by women in 2001. The National Violence Against Women Survey, cited on the B.J.S. Web site,  reports that 52 percent of surveyed women said they were physically assaulted as a child by an adult caretaker and/or as an adult by any type of perpetrator.

Can we invade ourselves?

Now before I am misunderstood (and I realize that few will read this far!) Let me be clear on one point; the suffering of the Afghani woman under the Taliban regime was extreme and hideous. No organization documented and spoke out more against that period and the treatment of women under that regime than the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) which was led by Meena Keshwar Kamal. In 1979, Kamal began a campaign against Soviet forces and the Soviet-supported government of Afghanistan. Her activities and views, as well as her work against the government and religious fundamentalists led to her assassination on February 4, 1987. But the organization lived on and carried on its work to reveal the horrors of the Taliban regime.

In fact, it was so popular in our propaganda war against the Soviet that RAWA that it was awarded over 16 awards and certificates from around the world for its work for human rights and democracy, some of the awards include The sixth Asian Human Rights Award – 2001, The French Republic’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity Human Rights Prize, 2000, Emma Humphries Memorial Prize 2001, Glamour Women of the Year 2001, 2001 SAIS-Novartis International Journalism Award from Johns Hopkins University, Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition from the U.S. Congress, 2004, Honorary Doctorate from University of Antwerp (Belgium) for outstanding non-academic achievements, as well as many other awards.

But when RAWA started to speak out against the American/NATO presence and the regime, it was sidelined. RAWA is a severe critic of the American/NATO alliance and its cronies in government. It has continued it struggle for Afghani women’s rights and protection and argued that:

The US “War on terrorism” removed the Taliban regime in October 2001, but it has not removed religious fundamentalism which is the main cause of all our miseries. In fact, by reinstalling the warlords in power in Afghanistan, the US administration is replacing one fundamentalist regime with another. The US government and Mr.Karzai mostly rely on Northern Alliance criminal leaders who are as brutal and misogynist as the Taliban.

But you would know this from the magazine, which has made a mockery of any pretense of independence and integrity. It tries to hide that it is the US/NATO that has sunk billions into the country, that controls its government and all civic institutions, and that these crimes against women are taking place under its watch.

But there are dozens of pictures the magazine chooses not to run or write about. Here is one below that you will not see on the covers of the magazine.

A victim of a US airstrike in bala baluk 2009 which possibly killed up to 150 people including women and children

A victim of a US airstrike in Bala Baluk in 2009 which possibly killed up to 150 people including women and children

To exploit the suffering of some Afghani women in order to justify our repression, torture, incarceration, and killings of other Afghani women (and children and men) is simply hideous to observe. And this war, and our presence in Afghanistan involves all these hideous things. We are being asked to sheds tears for one carefully selected set of suffering to later justify or simply look away from the infliction of another set of suffering. That is, we exploit these women’s stories to justify our military occupation of a land and a people increasingly determined to oust us from there!

The Managing Editor paints our presence there as purely noble:

…she is in a secret location protected by armed guards and sponsored by the NGO Women for Afghan Women. Aisha will head to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery sponsored by the Grossman Burn Foundation, a humanitarian organization in California. We are supporting that effort.

Ah, civilization here. Barbarism there. Its all too clear.

The fact is that the brutalities against Afghan women are not the exclusive purview of the so-called Taliban. They are a pathology that continues under our chosen allies in government, just as they had continued under various other regimes in the past. This is precisely what RAWA has been protesting (see here, and here, and here for example) and why their voices are today largely missing from our American media. Attempts at legal and other reforms have been attempted in the past, and resisted violently in the past. There have been many, including the former King, who attempted to confront the condition of the country’s women – his wives appeared in public forums unveiled which created great consternation amongst the conservative population. When the Russians tried to do it, we complained that they were undermining Afghani culture.

In the 1970s the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) – Afghanistan’s Communist part, made up of two factions the Khalq and the Parcham, attempted a series of reforms that later tipped the country into rebellion. It was the rebellion that initiated the Soviet invasion of the country. The focus of the reforms were economic, land and such. But a parts of the reform were laws that abolished bride price, set minimum ages for marriage and laid it down that freedom of choice must be allowed. The regime also tried to push towards universal literacy and education for both sexes (based on a Marxist curriculum). But as Martin Ewans points out in his book ‘Afghanistan:A New History

…these measures…took no account at all of the complexities of Afghan society and the interlocking economic and social relationships on which it depended…the practice of buying and selling wives, bride price was part of a traditional marriage contract, by which the bride was given compensating security, and, the reform struck at the heart of familial relationships.’.

(page 139 – 140).

We have reduced Afghanistan to a caricature of itself. Its people, their (horribly war devastated) society, their ways and norms, are completely unknown to us or simply ignored. By reducing the suffering of these women in the photo essay to ‘evils of the Taliban’ we do nothing but a further disservice to the women themselves, and to any genuine possibility of social and cultural reform. But to use these women to argue for an unjust, increasingly bloody and clearly disoriented military adventure is simply immoral and inhumane.

We are not in Afghanistan as protectors of their women. It was not the basis of our venture there, and it can’t be, despite this clod footed attempt by this magazine, the reasons for our staying there. The nation is in rebellion, the violence is increasing, hundreds are being killed, a corrupt and isolated leadership is maintained behind American/NATO protected barbed wire and guns, the drug trade is out of control, and the presidents brother and cronies are the wealthiest men in the country, while millions continue to suffer in penury and deprivation. To suggest that it is the women that have become our cause is to insult their loss and trauma, and to insult our intelligence and sense of history, justice and humanity.

When ever we are offered a choice between two options, we have to explore and question so that we can find others. There are never two options, nor a world lived in black or white. Aisha’s fate and suffering is as much our fault and the continuation of such pathologies a consequence of our presence. From the moment we stepped into that country, and began a military occupation there, we became contributors to its pathologies and to its possibilities. We Americans cannot pick and choose our influence, our impact. As principally and primarily a military force our consequences are overtly disruptive, destructive and dismantling. A nation that has suffered the trauma of decades of war has a culture, society, and values seriously contorted and maimed. And when we contribute to those decades of war and suffering with our own military might, we contribute to maintaining if not adding to the contortions and maiming.

The same magazine shedding tears over Aisha has remained silence over every other Afghani woman who has died under our bombs, drone missiles and M-16 fire. Are they not women? Were they not brutalized? How do you choose whose liberation you value? As our Afghan war falls to pieces, this attempt to foist a hysterical and ‘shock doctrine’ piece of propaganda suggests that the administration, along with its media hacks, is getting truly desperate and looking for ways to shut out minds if not our eyes, from its failure there.

The dehumanization and violence against the Afghan woman are genuine and serious. But it is not just a consequence of the Taliban, nor a clarion call for continued military occupation. It will not be resolved by military action, and it is not a concern or interest of our political and military leadership. These associations are desperate, infantile and insulting. That they are made after weeks of careful planning, execution of photographs, writing and editing tells us a lot about the limited intellects running our magazines.

And I will repeat; what irks me the most is the carefully selected sense of moral outrage for one set of victims and the complete silence and in fact justification for the sufferings of another. It is the hypocritical cleaving of our morality, our humanism, our sense of justice, outrage and anger that I find the most insidious act here. These photographs have become weapons of war, aimed at our minds to numb us into submission, to reduce us into towing the arguments of voices of violence and suffering. These photographs have been reduced from the possibility of a larger concern about the complete range of war crimes, crimes against humanity and criminal acts taking place in Afghanistan under our watch and frequently because of our watch, and instead carefully elided most all to turn a small spotlight towards a specific set of victims that we can carve into spokespeople for our political, strategic, military and imperial agendas. This is hypocritical concern at its best…or worst should I say. It reduces our sense of moral outrage and shared humanity to only where the magazine chooses to focus our attention. Its immoral and its unacceptable. Aisha is not the only victim, nor the most important one. So what about the rest? Organizations like RAWA have waged a consistent battle on this front, refusing to fall into the trap of convenient political calculations masquerading as a humanitarian and moral crusade. I wish our journalism could be even half as consistent and stop exploiting women to serve political interests.

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  1. [...] a comment » “The Spotlight Of Humanity Or How We Are Told To Look Only Where They Tell Us To Look” is a good place to start with this controversy. Click [...]

  2. [...] This is just another aspect of journalism that rarely gets discussed by photojournalists. That is, few if any discussions about the craft of photojournalism, and the way in which stories are produced, honestly reveal the entrenched relationship between the photographer, the story and the media outlet for which it is produced, or in which it is published. This issue has been on my mind since the recent production of Jodi Bieber’s piece on American wars and women’s liberty. See my earlier post called The Spotlight Of Humanity Or How We Are Told To Look Only Where They Tell Us To Look. [...]

  3. [...] extensively about the situation in Afghanistan in a number of earlier posts. Most recently in response to the cynical and hypocritical exploitation of Afghani women by Time Magazine (and later by National Geographic Magazine as well). But you can ignore my blather [...]

  4. [...] to this crass conflation of imperialism and feminism, I argued in an earlier blog post titled The Spotlight Of Humanity Or How We Are Told To Look Only Where They Tell Us To Look that: The timing of this cover, its hysterically comical association of continued war and Afghan [...]

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