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Sticking Our Head In The Sand Or We Just Liked Afghanistan Better When The Soviet’s Were Raping It

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Our Wars, Photography, The Daily Discussion on December 29, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Larry Towell is looking for money for a new project in Afghanistan and has placed his request on Kickstarter. This would all have been fine had it not been for the fact that he is doing the wrong project.

Larry Towell has been an inspiration, one of the first photographers whose works compelled me to come to photography. So it is with great disappointment that I read his description of what he intends to do in Afghanistan.

The opening sentence from his project description, a project called Crisis In Afghanistan, left me stunned:

For 30 years, Afghanistan has known only civil war.

No it has not. For the last ten years at least it has known a brutal, violent, devastating, and illegal American military occupation and war. For the last ten years it has known torture, tens of thousands of civilian deaths, the installation of a corrupt and illegal political administration, torture centers and sites, drone warfare, a flourishing drug trade, a venal political and international aid agency class and a dismemberment of any and all civil administration that may have once existed.

This is not a crisis it is an American war and an American military occupation, one that is using an unpopular, illegitimate and corrupt local elite to maintain a facade of a ‘political administration’.

For the last ten years Afghanistan has known American violence and venality. If we were outraged at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan then it is sheer hypocrisy to accept our pillaging and occupation of Afghanistan today. It is unbelievable the ease with which we, citizens of a democratic republic, have adopted the lies and obfuscations of our governments, and the obsequiousness with which we have become collaborators and apologists for its misguided military adventures and violence.

I find it shocking that we cannot admit or accept that we are occupiers and collaborators in a hideous military and political adventure in the country and today principally responsible for the daily horrors, violence, bloodshed, brutality, criminality and venality that infests it. I find it laughable that we will not accept that today we are ‘the Evil Empire’, a place that once the Soviet’s held. I am dismayed, angered even, that photographers of Larry Towell’s intelligence and courage must resort to an outdated language, to bygone military adventures and histories and skip past the most current and pressing pathology plaguing the nation of Afghanistan.

How long are we going to pretend that we do not have anything to do with Afghanistan’s current devastation, mutilation, corruption, and mass dispossession? How many more embedded perspective do we need to keep ourselves from accepting what we are doing there, and how we are seen there?

Here is Larry telling us what he will cover in his project;

…landmine victims, male and female drug addicts, political detainees in Puli-Charki prison, ex-Russian soldiers, and veterans.

My goodness, what temerity to ask for funds for a project that offers nothing new, and for subjects that have been done to death. To say nothing about the fact that they say nothing of the current reality and horrors plaguing the country.

Russian soldiers? Pul-i-Charki prison?

Larry, what about drone attack victims, illegal detainees at Bagram, those tortured and left mentally deranged, what about the millions living in refugee camps displaced by American and NATO military operations, or the families whose men have disappeared into prisons and never heard from again, what about the families of those killed by the dozens each month because of our bombs and our indiscriminate aerial strikes?

I feel that such projects and their associated language are selling us a time machine, one that takes us to an Afghanistan horror story more palatable, more acceptable to our gentle American sensibilities. We want to hear about the errors from another period, when our participation in Afghanistan was heroic, moral and based on a rhetoric of freedom and liberation. Yes, the days back when the Islamic fundamentalists were labeled ‘freedom fighters’, invited to dine at the White House, and we could not stop having ourselves photographed with. The same people who today we have had to re-cast as ‘the bad guys’, but were once our allies, and the recipients of billions of dollars of American tax-payers money. All for an imagined great war of liberation, the one we all rushed to cover and then to garland ourselves with later.

This need to fly past our modern-day pathologies and back towards a period of imagined righteousness was also on display during the recent International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award ceremony where the photographer Reza was handed ICP’s highest award for his work in Afghnistan covering the Soviet invasion and its aftermath.

Did any in that room full of luminaries and glitterati feel any irony when Reza opened his acceptance speech with the following words:

“Once upon a time there was an unequal battle; that of a giant and murderous Empire, which was trying all the way to subdue a defenceless but rebellious people who had repelled all foreign invasions.

Once upon a time there was the Russian Empire against Afghanistan. It was thirty years ago. As a young photojournalist, I was covering that unequal conflict and the resistance of a handful of men led by Commander Massoud. Russian fire was heavy, with helicopters, tanks, bombers, leaving no relief and little chance of escaping certain death. The massacred people was suffering. The resistance Afghan fought for the freedom of their country.

Did anyone in that grand ballroom feel a tinge of anxiety when Reza said:

Empires, tyrants and their desire of conquest are but little things in front of passing Time and the will of a people marching towards freedom.

Did anyone notice the irony and the hypocrisy of an American institution handing out awards to a photographer who once covered an illegal military occupation of Afghanistan when at that very moment America’s own military is mired in an illegal military occupation of that very same country? I doubt it. We prefer not to be bothered by such niceties for it ruins the flavor of the champagne.

(Aside: I take nothing away from Reza who has also been an inspiration to me. His work from Afghanistan remains unique and reflects his passion and dedication to the story and the situation back in the 1970s and 1980s. My comments reflect my disappointment with ICP and an American cultural space that wants to contribute towards obfuscations to help hide the fact that we are and remain at war and as oppressors of another people.)

I have written 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 if you wish and at least listen to those doing independent i.e un-embedded work in the country and understand what is going on there.

There is Jeremy Scahill who has been featured on this blog a few times, most recently in a piece called What It Looks Like When  You Leave The Embed Or Thank Goodness Some Remember The Basics. You can listen to Scahill here:

Jeremy Scahill Talks About Afghanistan

There is also Nir Rosen, a freelance journalist and scholar, who had done some remarkable reporting from the regions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Aftermath By Nir Rosen

You can listen to Rosen talk with Amy Goodman about the situation in Afghanistan here

Nir Rosen On Democracy Now

In an interview with Salon’s Glenn Greenwald Rosen makes specific reference to the issue of how our elites (cultural, creative, artistic, intellectual, political etc.) represent our wars. As Glenn Greenwald points out:

…there is between how American elites talk about our wars and the reality of those wars and the things that you actually see by being there and in an unembedded function, and there’s this interesting speech that I’ve written about a few times by Ashleigh Banfield, who at the time was an MSNBC war reporter who was sort of the rising star of the MSNBC and NBC news and she was relatively new to covering wars, and she had come back from Iraq and she gave this speech at Kansas State University and she talked about the huge disparity between how television conveys wars to the American people and the reality of wars and all the things that embedding does in terms of distortions and this sliver of reality that ends up being conveyed.

The attitude, the distance we have maintained from those we today oppress are clearly discussed by Rosen as well when he points out that:

And I too often also found that Americans keep on going back to the same books, the same orientalist books which are used to justify empire, that Arabs only understand force, they are tribal, they are Bedouin. I’ve seen very little progress actually in the Americans’ ability to grasp the cultures in the Muslim world and they refer to a handful of academics who are far outside the mainstream of academics trying to understand the Middle East of Afghanistan, but who have been used to justify various wars and occupations.

So they still will talk about tribal societies and Bedouin societies as if they are some kind of cultural secrets, and if you just unlock these secrets, if it’s Pashtunwali in Afghanistan or Islamic code or Bedouin code, or Koranic society—you heard these weird terms often—if you just unlock these codes, you can understand the people and manipulate them and control them…you often hear American soldiers talking about if you, as if it’s the Sopranos…as if the primary motivator for people fighting occupation is money and not what it really is, issues of dignity, of freedom, of nationalism, of ideology. It’s almost as if Americans aren’t able to understand those concepts and they think that Taliban are fighting for $10 a day.

But I guess if the Americans were able to understand that, then that would make us seem like we were the bad guys, and we don’t want to feel like we’re the bad guys, we don’t want to feel like we’re the British in Braveheart fighting locals who are nationalists and freedom fighters. So I guess we have to try to understand their motives as being more financial whereas in reality I think they’re much more deeply ideological and nationalistic.

Indeed, it is perhaps impossible to raise funds on Kickstarter if you simple argue that you want to produce a project that explores and documents the horrors of the American occupation and a people’s resistance to it. I suppose it’s not palatable to present your work as documenting the new Empire and its oppressions. And herein lies another issue with these ‘alternative’ models of funding.

There has been a rather naive celebration of crowd sourced journalism projects and how it may be the solution to journalism and photojournalism’s woes. Perhaps another round of desperate attempts to avoid facing the economic realities of mainstream journalism, driven as they are by profit over reporting. When I hear a new crowd sourcing venture argue that the allure and sexiness of photojournalism will be a major selling angle, something pointed out in a piece called Photojournalism Site Emphas.is Wants To Leverage The Crowd Through The Romanticism Of Its Craft, I begin to wonder where we are heading. I quote from the piece above:

Photojournalists, particularly war photographers, have a certain allure, one Ben Khelifa hopes is the basis for a business model. “We have a romanticism around our profession,” he says. “We realized that our work isn’t the end product, but how we got to it. This is what we expect to monetize.”

Are you serious? Do photojournalists really think like this? Not only is a very specious argument for a business model but it is a terrible place to arrive as a person and a professional.

However, there is a larger concern as demonstrated by Larry Towell’s proposal where, a photographer who I am sure knows well what is really going on in Afghanistan, has chosen to ‘soften’ his words to appeal to ‘the market’. Perhaps, though I will never know. Crowd sourcing requires that we adopt a populist angle to a project, it may force reporters and photographers to avoid self-critical and uncomfortable subjects and demand that we pitch our stories for the widest sell rather than for the deepest truths. It’s not inevitable, but it is likely. I will add that outlets like Kickstarter and Emphas.is may in fact be best suited for highly controversial, critical projects as audiences look to find photographers and reporters taking risks to tell the stories our mainstream media is too constrained to tell. It could be that Larry Towell is missing an opportunity here!

I want to support Larry’s work. His has been a very important career for my own. But I find myself unable to do so as the project stands at the moment. For no other reason than the fact that such obfuscations and veils continue to eat away at the body politic and society of my country. America is weaker for not confronting her government and its pathologically misguided adventures. Our wars are weakening us, and making us more insecure. They are also destroying the liberties that we enjoy as citizens and increasing the intrusive and oppressive presence of the intelligence and security apparatus into our lives. As an American citizen of Muslim background – the only facet about my identity that seems to matter to people these days and the one that colors and overwhelms whatever else I am and have worked to become as an individual, I am already completely vulnerable to powers of the state with little or no recourse to her avenues of justice and rights.

The greatest danger of a military occupation is that inevitably the paranoia fueled security-oriented political and administrative decision-making procedures required to sustain an occupation eventually come home and undermine and weaken the occupier’s political system. Andif that political system is a participatory democracy, the consequences are even more devastating. You can’t claim liberty at home and repression abroad because the decisions to maintain the repression abroad are eventually made and sanctioned by the same political and bureaucratic individuals and institutions that sanction the horizons of liberty at home. The values that inform the occupation inevitably begin to inform the liberties as the divide between the ‘there’ and the ‘here’ become blurred and danger lurk all around and every thing becomes a source of fear and worry. The French have seen this from their experience in Algeria, the Israelis from their occupation of the Palestinian Territories, the Indians fromin Kashmir and now in the Eastern provinces and there are many more examples.

If not for the Afghanis, then for ourselves we have to adopt an honest and clear language about what is happening in our wars, and what we are doing out ‘there’. A project to tell the story of what we have done in Afghanistan, and the devastation and inhumanity we are facilitating, is a must and I would support it with all that I can afford to.

The Singular Experience Or What Photojournalism Can Be As Discovered In A New Pakistan Literary Review Journal

In Background Materials, Essays Related To Pakistan, Journalism, Photography, Readings, The Daily Discussion on December 28, 2010 at 3:36 pm

I think…[y]ou can’t write about Pakistan and get to Pakistanis – it has to be the other way around. Pakistan must be approached as Pakistanis, through Pakistanis, through singular experiences, through the stories we tell ourselves. We need these stories, even if they are never written down and exist only in words over coffee or just in our heads. These are the stories that get us through the day, through the “situation,” through the concept.

Hasan Altaf, Lifes Too Short vs. Granta December 2010

My dismay with the state of current photojournalism has been repeatedly expressed here on this blog. In a number of pieces on photographer and photojournalism I have called for photographers to step away from cliches and conventions and look to produce new stories based on a fresh, creative, new set of thoughts and ideas. Some of my perspectives can be found in pieces like 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. 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.

Much of this dismay has been inspired by the dismally limited ways in which the country of Pakistan (where I was born and raised before leaving for the USA in 1984) has been documented and represented by the dozens of photographers and photojournalists who have worked here. Particularly since the terrible events of September 11th 2001, the representation of Pakistan has largely become trapped in angles driver by vast geo-political themes like the ‘war against terror’, the ‘hunt for Al-Qaeda’ and ‘the rise of the Taliban’. Too often and too frequently the approach taken by photographers is to concentrate on the large narratives about the country, imbuing their work that focuses on the specific, from the perspective of their all-encompassing themes to help ‘reveal’ and/or explain the country.  I have always felt this to be a terribly limiting way of working in the country and have personally attempted to cut past them and get to something more unique, something more personal.

I was reminded of this struggle to find a different way of speaking of and documenting the country by a piece written by Hasan Altaf where he reviews two literary anthologies based on writing by Pakistani writers. Altaf examines and compares the Pakistan issue of Granta Magazine (I mentioned it here on this blog some weeks ago) and a recently published Pakistan literary journal Life’s Too Short that also featured works from Pakistani writers albeit of a different pedigree and status. The review, titled Lifes Too Short vs. Granta offered some lovely insights into ways in which we need to today document and speak about Pakistan – a nation that seems to be constantly teetering on the brink of disaster and yet somehow manages to muddle its way to another tomorrow. Altaf very quickly sees the main different between these two journal’s attempt to grapple with the idea of Pakistan, and Pakistani writing:

It would be oversimplifying to say that the difference between the two is that of macro and micro, capital-H History and ordinary stories. It’s more likely that the collections simply reflect their different intentions. Granta is geared to the “international market,” which in this context means, I imagine, the Western market, and that market has certain expectations from Pakistani writing. The Life’s Too Short anthology will probably not be read as much, outside of the country, and so does not have to meet those expectations.

But the main jist of his argument is the fact that he finds the works in the smaller, lesser known journal to in fact be the way forward. Admitting that the nation is beset with serious, encompassing and geo-politically relevant problems, he nevertheless reminds us that:

I don’t see how anyone writing about Pakistan now, writing anything, could fail to at least indirectly touch on the current [broader] situation; it would be like writing about Atlanta in the 1800s and never mentioning slavery, writing about Europe in the 1940s without even hinting at a war. This is our environment, now; violence is part of the fabric of our lives, more so than it was before. But a story made up of beards and bombs, with perhaps an honor killing every now and then for spice, would be an uninteresting polemic with little to say about reality. It would be writing directly to an expectation, giving some readers exactly what they want and expect – and if that’s all it does, then what would be the point of writing?

People confront the current situation every day, but in small ways; the war may be general, but the battles are specific. A father whose son is disappeared; a child whose mosque is suicide-bombed or drone attacked into oblivion; a woman trying to drive across a dysfunctional city; even someone waiting for hours and hours for their lights to come back on – these are the battles, the small, individual ways in which Pakistanis live Pakistan. In some pieces in the Life’s Too Short anthology, the situation lurks like this, as background noise, part of the set – but never the star.

The stress must now clearly be on the particular, the singular. The possibly exciting work is to understand and reveal how, given the broader pathologies infecting the nation, individuals find ways – ways that require courage, determination, creativity, patience, and faith, to navigate past them.

This insight applies not just to writers, but also to photographers. I earlier wrote a piece lamenting the limited exploration of Pakistan by the dozens of foreign photographers and hundreds of local photographers who work in the country at any one time. I had already stated in an earlier post:

I have written frequently enough about the rather shoddy and limited engagement most photographers and photojournalists have had with this nation. Here in the pages of this magazine [Granta's Pakistan issue] a few of Pakistan’s young writers, artists and poets offer a vision of the country, its people and their lives that are determinedly missing from the world of photography and photojournalism. The contrast cannot be sharper and I can’t think of many other nations where the divide between how it is represented by ‘the outsider’ and how it is expressed the ‘the locals’ is greater. I have yet to meet a major photographer or photojournalists who can actually name an important Pakistani writer.

It is Hasan’s insight that then helps fill the gap – that what is missing is the commitment to the particular, the willingness to engage with the specific. Most photographers have shied away from engaging in the lives and existence of ordinary Pakistanis to help us not just understand the struggles of the nation, but also the perspectives of its citizens. Tens of thousands of photographs later we are still documenting the nation from an aggregate level, still surfing the surface of its society, still refusing to listen to its people, still rejecting the gravity and seriousness of their lives, aspirations, dreams, opinions and sorrows.

I believe that this is the insight that compelled Indian photographer Dyanita Singh to spend thirteen years on a story of Myself Mona Ahmed – the singular over the general

Dayanita Singh Myself Mona Ahmed

I had already called out Alexandra Fazzina’s work in the country as a rare example of a photographer attempting to get to the particular. I also recently met the unique and individual Malcolm Hutcheson who has given nearly fifteen years of his life and photographic interest to Pakistan to produce some unique work from the country.

Copyright Malcolm Hutcheson

Both are outsiders prepared to go inside, and both remain unique in their focus and approach and both seem determined to not allow the grand themes from distracting them from their stories. There is an engagement here that stems from curiosity, humility and just plain excitement of discovery.

So much of what is produced these days seems pre-fabricated to serve simplistic editorial/sensationalism agendas either perceived or manufactured by the photographer him/herself. There are presumptions made – and of course these are enforced by editors no doubt, but nevertheless the individual photographer is ultimately responsible, for how a region, a people, and a topic should be visually documented. There are presumptions about ‘must have’ images, and areas of documentation, that today just seem to be being produced from preconceived templates.

But photographers like Hutcheson remind us that not everyone is buying into the hype, and that some still retain an individual capacity of thought, creativity and engagement. More importantly, that some are confident enough to argue their perspective and have themselves be noticed and their voices heard ´Hutcheson was short-listed for the Prix Pictet in 2008.

I can’t help but stress the goldmine of photographic possibilities that is Pakistan. It’s a goldmine that few are bothering to examine and explore. I have argued in the past that this probably has a lot to do with the fact that most who come here know little about it as a country – they are poorly aware of her history, literature, arts, culture, and society. They arrive with pre-fab agendas and pre-fab publication goals, and leave with cookie-cutter photographs which eventually sell because we know that horror and blood does sell but it never says anything interesting or insightful about the country.

This I am aware is a challenge I face myself as a photographer working in Pakistan – I too have been part of the caravan of sensationalism and I too have frequently seen the nation in the grand themes while avoiding its singular ones. But at this moment in time something is changing, and new work is emerging, where the singular, the particular, the Pakistanis who can help us see Pakistan are beginning to appear on my negatives. I am taking this journey, attempting to cross the intellectual, cultural, class and moral divides that have kept me from the people of the country. The challenge I face is one I hope others will too. Perhaps there is an element of laziness in these repeated calls for a better Pakistani photography – a hope that someone will produce a work so stark and real that I will finally understand how it should be done. Until then, my own limited attempts will have to suffice.

What Is A Muslim Boy To Do On Christmas Other Than…

In Book Responses, Readings, The Daily Discussion on December 26, 2010 at 3:59 pm

…read.

Across my lap sits a fascinating work by Tzevetan Todorov called The Fear Of The Barbarians: Beyond The Clash of Civilizations where he confronts Europe’s slide towards xenophobia and Islamophobia and the abandonment of the principles of the Enlightenment (Todorov’s real interest is in this particular moment in European history and his The Imperfect Garden a wonderful exploration of the development of thought and ideal of that period, and their relevance and important to our modern age) that these attitude entail.

The Fear Of Barbarians By Tzevetan Todorov

And I can’t recommend enough Todorov’s earlier work The Imperfect Garden: The Legacy of Humanism

The Imperfect Garden By Tzetevan Todorov

And yes, I am reading it on a Kindle reader as a test to see if I eventually want to invest in a Kindle itself. My love of the book, the sheer pleasure of its presence in my hands, the ability to write within it, and the security of being able to hold it are hard to overcome. But as I prepare to spend the next many months working in India, I worry that I will not be able to carry as many books as I will want to read. I dearly hope that the Kindle can be even half as accessible and pleasurable as a physical book so that I can simply justify getting it, and being able to read voraciously and passionately during those many hours spent waiting for photographs.

The last some weeks have seen me explore America’s women writers, and I have been ensnared by Jennifer Egan’s hiliarious, poignant, and sad novel A Visit From The Goon Squad

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

She is one of a number of American women authors I am trying to examine and read. I am not sure why I have turned to them – perhaps a realization that I rarely read women writers, or that the sheer desperate gravity of so many of America’s ‘masters’ is becoming tiresome and disappointing. Recent works by Franzen, Roth, Delillo have left me completely unimpressed and unmoved. Worse, they have revealed a lack of creativity, compassion and curiosity about the world around them. So the women writers have proven more exciting perhaps because they seem less determined to write grand politically intelligent narratives and concentrate instead on the complexity of individual lives and small town experiences.

Pankaj Mishra expressed similar sentiments in a piece on American literature, and drew my attention to the works of America’s women writers like Picoult, Jane Smiley, Lorrie Moore, Shirley Hazzard, and Deborah Eisenberg. Some hours spent at the local bookstore had me coming home with Eisenberg’s collected works

The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg

On a different note, I do have in front of my a copy of Steinbeck’s The Pearl a book that has stood on my shelf for some years without my having read it. I can’t for the life of me remember why I never read it. But I am now.

The Pearl by Steinbeck

Wealth and greed destroys all – that is Steinbeck’s simple message in this lovely novella. And as I am reminded of this fact, I always turn towards those who may remind me of the other things in life that are worth fighting for. Edward Said’s Humanism and Democratic Criticism has been a long time favorite and once again sits in front of me as I remind myself of the completely naive, irresponsible, and as some would say, silly ideals and values that inform some of the works I am pursuing today

Humanism And Democratic Criticism by Edward Said

And there is more…a lot more – a return to Ayesha Jalal’s Self & Sovereignty and Bhabha’s Nation & Narration, Chatterjee’s Empire And Nation, Eqbal Ahmed’s selected writings and more. The latter all part of a process of turning my mind and eye back to the India project that has now seen a near nine month hiatus as a result of bureaucracy and logistics.

On Nothing, From Nothing

In Musings On Confusions on December 25, 2010 at 4:36 pm

When I was young, I tried very hard. I wept every day in the studio because there was such a distance between what I wanted to do and what came out. Now I’m at peace, because of old age. It flows calmly now. I meditate for a long time. I work against ego. I think ego is an obnoxious bother. To a great extent I have lost all interest in this fiction, Hedda Sterne.

Hedda Sterne from Sarah Boxer’s The Last Irascible in The New York Review of Books

My nightmares and my sorrows stem from this demon which is ruining my peace, my completion, my work and my inspiration. It is ruining my voice. Oh, how i wish to kill this beast, to traverse these divisions and do so before my mind fails, my legs break, and my soul falters. Oh how I wish to produce even just one image that is unfettered and unstained.

Hollywood And War Or How The Silver Screen Is Also An Obfuscating Veil

In Background Materials, Journalism, Our Wars, The Daily Discussion on December 24, 2010 at 3:57 pm

The program does not go far enough, to be honest, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a news channel taking on the question

This of course is a subject well covered in some interesting books. The few come immediately to mind and that I consider interesting because they examination of the close collaboration between the United States arms of warfare and the United States arms of entertainment to sell a specific angle and perspective on the conflict the nation may be engaged in.

The most recent war sold has of course has been the ‘war against terror’ and the speed and energy with which Hollywood (and here I include television productions) has trotted out venomous and evil ‘Muslim’ terrorists out to ‘nuke’ America, created fantasy scenarios that set up the necessity of using torture and the many lives that were later saved, the ease with which extra-judiciary killings, incarcerations, and brutality were justified through scripts bent on simplifying the world into ‘with us/with them’, and the powerful ways in which our invasions and occupations have been re-cast as conflicts without histories and without our agency.

But this is an old story, and it goes back to WWII as Koppes and Black explain in Hollywood Goes To War: How Politics, Profits and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies.

A work that looks at a more contemporary application of the same principles is Douglas Kellner’s Cinema Wars: Hollywood Film and Politics in the Bush-Cheney Era.

Then there is also Bogg’s Hollywood War Machine: US Militarism & Popular Culture. And so much more that helps us understand the reason we see what we see on the silver screen.

There are a lot of works that explore and highlight the close ties between those who produce mass media products like movies, television, mainstream newspapers, radio programs etc.

This is a broad, complex subject but in an age euphemistically known as ‘the information age’ our individual liberties and in fact our ability to defend or weakening democratic institutions depends on our understanding what we are told is ‘information’ and ‘news’, how this information is manufactured and sourced, how it is approved for distribution and dissemination, and how it is influenced. We are excited at the ease of access of information, but too many are too quick to grab the ‘corporate’ ease of an iPhone application, or the cable television news channels, or the laziness of the prime time evening news, and never bother to think about how all the information that is coming at them is prepared, packaged and presented.

There is no doubt that Hollywood films have been at the forefront of creating the popular beliefs that allow us to perpetuate war endlessly, and continue to silence as our public services and rights are erased while trillions continue to flow into the pockets of the military establishment and private corporate interests. popular assumptions about what is right, what is wrong, what is essential, what is compelled, are always manufactured assumptions. this is perhaps one of the oldest lessons of war and propaganda.

And while you are at it, this may also be a great time to return to Leni Reifenstahl’s Triump Of The Will to remember the original masters who conflated entertainment, and war, and helped close our minds while opening our will towards conquest and mayhem.

W. Eugene Smith’s The Jazz Loft Project

In Photography, The Daily Discussion on December 20, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Lets face it; when it comes to photojournalism and the photoraphers who most defined its characteristics, attitudes, aspirations, values and language, we would almost always have to begin with W. Eugene Smith. The master photographer, the passionate soul, the determinedly individual and independent, the singularly human, Eugene Smith raised the bar of not only how one worked as a photographer, but also how one ‘drew’ a photograph onto film.

Who can ever forget the beauty of Tomoko Uemura in her bath, and the genius of the photographer who found a way to represent it:

Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath Minamata, 1972 Copyright W. Eugene Smith

Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath Minamata, 1972 Copyright W. Eugene Smith

I do not exaggerate when I saw that this was the photograph that back in 1986 first made me think about becoming a photographer. It has remained etched in my mind and soul since.

So it was with some excitement and pleasure that I discovered Sam Stephenson,of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, website for his book The Jazz Loft Project

The Jazz Loft Project

The Jazz Loft Project

Stephenson describe’s Smith’s production of this work as ‘…an obsessive achievement’, but clearly, by his own definition, Stephenson too was obsessed for he points out that he:

…made 115 trips to New York City over a span of time that can be measured by telephones and storefronts: I called Robert Frank from a cold, indestructible pay phone at the end of Bleecker, near CBGB; Roy Haynes on a Motorola StarTAC from a brownstone on 9th Street, a few doors from Balducci’s; and, a few weeks ago, Mary Frank on my iPhone from Spoon in Chelsea.

You can read Stephenson’s piece in the new issue of The Paris Review blog where in a piece called The Jazz Loft Project he discussed Eugene Smith’s involvement in this project and the characters and lives that he documented.

This is a wonderfully interesting site, and it is a thrill to see the love, care, attention and detail that has been bestowed on the work of W. Eugene Smith. Stephenson’s inquiries into the life and career of this most amazing of photographers continues as he works on a new biography that will also see him:

… embark on a five-week visit to the Pacific Islands, where Smith made combat photographs during World War II, and to Japan, where he photographed Hitachi City in the early sixties and Minamata a decade later. There are some fifty more people I want to interview as well. The detective work is intoxicating, opening up unexpected worlds outside of Smith’s immediate circle.

W. Eugene Smith was frequently derided in his times, ignored by editors and even fired from his positions at major magazines. But he worked past all of this through the strength of his vision, convictions and self-confidence. His work and his legacy has stood the test of time and remains an inspiration to so many still naively determined to produced beautiful works about beautiful and human issues.

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall, Who Is The Wikiest Of Them All…

In Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on December 9, 2010 at 8:20 pm
WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks Mirror Site DIY

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Seeing Europe Everywhere, Even In The Unfolding Of Another People’s Histories

In Book Responses, Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on December 9, 2010 at 5:55 pm

There are some issues where obfuscation and confusion are so prevalent, so pervasive, that we are unable to know what we are talking about any more. A recent example of such a situation is encapsulated and discussed in this new book by Gilbert Achcar called The Arabs & The Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War Of Narratives. There is a wide and popular set of writings that claims and insists that it is an inherent Arab anti-Semitism that informs the Arab resistance to the idea of Israel, and underpins the ongoing conflict there. That this Arab anti-Semitism is determined to destroy Israel and she is defending herself against this stain that aims to bring the holocaust back to the Jewish community.

There is little to argue against the fact that this narrative is largely believed, particularly in Europe and the USA, and strangely in full denial of the actual lived history and heritage of the Jews in the Middle East. Perhaps more egregiously, it is a narrative that takes a many centuries old European heritage of anti-Semitism, a heritage deeply ingrained in her society, literature, arts, and political (anyone remember Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice?) and simply foists its presumptions and history onto a new people where neither evidence nor experience suggests that anything of a similar depth and entrenchment ever occurred. However, challenging this has been difficult and many academics have continued to make this claim, and definitely many Israeli politicians and their supporters in the USA have repeated it ad nauseum – the Arab are anti-Semites and that is what is being fought in the wars in West Bank and Gaza, and that is what confronts Israel in Iran (ignoring the fact that nearly 30,000 Jews continue to live in Iran and are valued and crucial parts of its society and the nation!).

Now comes an essay in Dissent magazine called Anti-Semitism And Ignorance by Fredrik Meiton, a PhD student at NYU, as a review of Achcar’s book. It makes for interesting reading as Meiton challenges Achcar’s arguments and takes issues with specific incidents that Achcar outlines as in fact evidence of anti-Semitism. But throughout the essay this young man erases precisely what every Israeli or other politician, academic and intellectual with a strong pro-Israeli bent has done; the Nakba. Meiton wants to erase the broader political context of why Arabs, and let’s be specific – British Mandate Arabs were so supportive of the Nazis, and why the Nazis’ were so eager to foster collaboration with the British Mandate Arabs; it was calculated politics.

Meiton’s criticisms also represents a strange tendency of many to see all history as merely variations on European history – an Eurocentric pathology that insidiously and with alarming ignorance refuses to allow other people to have their own motivations, reasons, politics, calculations, judgements, designs and ideas. Meiton seems unable to allow for an Arab people to have an Arab-centric idea of resistance, opposition, ideas, politics, understanding of historical imperatives, and protection of cultural and social traditions.

We can’t avoid the fact that towards the end of WWI the Arabs of Palestine were confronted, thanks to the Balfour arrogance, a near absolute dispossession and dispersal. It was the Zionists, claiming to speak for all Jewery, who were going to be responsible for this dispossession. The very Zionists who happily conflated their Zionist political goals with Jewish spiritual and divine beliefs. This latter conflation of Israel with the entire Jewish community over the world was a political and rhetorical trick that Israel continues to use when it serves its purpose, but wants to scream ‘anti-Semitism’ against when criticism is aimed at its policies and practices. That is, on the one hand Israel says that Zionism is an all-Jewish movement, argues that anti-Zionists are anti-Jew and anti-Semitism, but then screams bloody murder if their opponents make the same connections by loudly accusing them of anti-Semitism! It’s a wonderful trick of language and reflects once again the powerful ways in which it can be manipulated to discredit your opponent. By conflating Israel with Jews, they can conflate criticism of and resistant to the Israel project with anti-Semitism. This is old news, but it was disappointing to read Meiton doing precisely this in his review; using this sleight of hand to build all his arguments in the review.

Meiton makes the same mistake; he can’t come around to acknowledge that the ‘heritage of anti-Semitism’ that he is talking about only dates to post- WWI, and has no historical trajectory to explain it. That is, all those who claim that the Arabs are inherently anti-semitic, begin their stories around 1918, unable as they are to find earlier traces, or even any consistent evidence of this in literature, politics, culture, poetry, art, politics, economics etc. They can’t find evidence because there isn’t any of a social pathology. What they find is a resistance and an opposition to the Jewish/Zionist/Israeli (take your pick!) project, and Meiton cannot accept that this resistance can be anything other than a social pathology.

That all the principal perpetrators of the so-called Arab anti-Semitism happen to be Palestinian Arabs, is ignored i.e. why would the Palestinians Arabs of British Mandate Palestine be opposed to the Jews and choose to collaborate with any power that was also opposed to the Jews? Well, because of what they knew was coming to Palestine – the colonization of their lands by tens of thousands, the dispossession and the displacement. It was a life and death moment. But Meiton can’t admit to this – he sees in incidences like a Nazi official being saluted by Arabs as evidence of anti-Semitism, rather than the evidence of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ and no more. Meiton also wants to finely slice “Jews” from “Israelis’ from ‘Zionists’, but this is disingenuous for after all Israel’s own leaders and pundits never do this; when it suits them, they assume any one of these costumes to serves their purposes. If Israel is criticised, it is anti-Semitism because Israel is for all Jew etc. Sometimes it feels like the 3-cup trick; guess which one the dice is under!

This review is a classic case of a double-bind most Israeli apologists find themselves in. By erasing history, and the torturous experiences of the lesser other, the Palestinian, they then proceed to try to construct a narrative that gives precedence of Europe and a European history. Unable to acknowledge the stories and equal validity of ‘the other’, they are confused at the persistent resistance and entrenched opposition of this lesser people. Why do they hate us – because of who we are, and never because of what we have done to them. I often wonder if this shuttered view is intentionally constructed, or a means to ease our guilt and avoid the horror of our actions. To now face the fact that we are murderers, rapists, thieves and pillagers, and that our fine civilization is intrinsically tied to this barbarism.

And equally, I would argue, on a different note, that such loose and frivolous attempts to equate European antisemitism with Arab nationalist resistance to the Zionist/Jewish colonial project, denigrates the insidiousness and sheer entrenched scale of Europe’s hatred of the Jew. It takes what is a genuine fact with a centuries old heritage (anyone remember the expulsion of the Jews from Cordoba?) and attempts to foist its burdens onto a small people, in a small part of the world, who in a moment of fear and desperation choose their friends poorly, but were certainly not the only ones to have done so. We must also remember that in India, anti-British nationalists also collaborated with the Nazis, and even with the Japanese – anything to oust the colonialists, anything to protect their lives and their liberties.

Speaking about the Nakba is a punishable crime in Israel. Why? Meiton never mentions the Nakba, nor admits to a genuine grievance of the Palestinian Arabs in pre-Israel times. He never offers a larger political, social and colonial understanding of the period  – not the history of the region, the colonial context of its emergence, and the specific problems and fears that underpinned their allegiance to the Nazis. Their history, their horrors, their sufferings, their worries, their resistance, their determination to hold on to what was going to stolen from them, do not count as relevant facts in this story. Tariq Ali reviewed the same book and began his review of Achcar’s book from the very place that Meiton refuses to:

It was not until after the first world war that relations between the communities began to deteriorate seriously. The reason for this was the Balfour declaration (opposed by Edwin Montagu, the only Jewish member of the British cabinet) that offered a homeland in Palestine to the Zionist Federation, without any consultations whatsoever with the people who lived on the land. Hitler and the judeocide of the second world war further cemented the foundations of the settler-state and led to the nakba for the Palestinian Arabs of the region. Hardly surprising that this led to the “war of narratives”

Where is this in Meiton’s account? As the Israeli/Jewish/Zionist (take your pick!) dispossession and occupation of the Palestinians as continued, as the Israeli/Jewish/Zionists wars in the region have continued unabated (Lebanon, attacks and occupation of Syrian and Syrian lands, attacks on Iraq, attacks on Egypt, attacks on Jordan) and as Israeli/Jewish/Zionist rhetoric of more war and greater war (Iraq, now Iran, who is next) underpins the presence of the state in the region, should it surprise us then that it is not uncommon or unexpected that Arabs will adopt a language of resistance and opposition that also uses the Israeli/Jewish/Zionist labels loosely and carelessly? Can Israel claim that is is the sanctuary of all Jews of the world, that being anti-Israel is being anti-semitic and then should ‘foul’ when in fact the people it confronts can’t tell the difference between what is anti-semitic and what is anti-colonialist or anti-Israeli nationalism?

Meiton is determined to point out Achcar’s flagrant use of ‘ignorance of the Arabs of broader political realities’ to explain what to Meiton’s eyes are clear acts of anti-Semitism, as for example when they allow a Nazi official to leave unhurt after he steps out of his car in the middle of a riot shouting ‘Heil Hitler!’ As Meiton argues.

This repeated use of ignorance as an explanatory—and exculpatory—factor is the book’s greatest flaw. Whenever Achcar encounters anti-Semitism alongside contradictory words or deeds, the former is automatically discounted. The presence of such contradictions, he assumes, proves that it is a matter of ignorance, and not of real anti-Semitism.

But why is it not ignorance and real anti-Semitism? Meiton never offers an argument to counter Achcar’s argument i.e. Meiton has no evidence that in fact it was nothing but political convenience rather than an entrench social pathology called anti-Semitism. Meiton does not need to; he relies on our European/American presumptions that this behavior, as echoed in European history, could only be anti-Semitism. If it looks like a goose, walks like a goose, sounds like a goose, it must be a goose!

But the ignorance is on Meiton’s side; by failing to point out or accept that the Arabs of British Mandate Palestine were in a full-scale rebellion against the machinations of the Zionists, and the tens of thousands of immigrants that were arriving, the violence / terrorism that was being conducted by the Irgun for example, he deceives the reader, and also himself.

An entire people’s experience and perspective is absolutely absent; a taboo of such stark proportions that it can’t even be elided to in the review, and the realities of the political and military acts taking place on the ground during the period this so-called Arab anti-Semitism raises it head, erased as explanatory factors.The erasures are too stark. And they are not just Meiton’s, but those of the editors of the magazine and the reviewers who allowed this piece to go through. For after all, none of them noticed what was left unsaid.

(Full disclosure: This is not a review in defense of Gilbery Achcar’s book. I have not read the book so am not in a position to judge its contents or its arguments. What I am responding to here are Meiton’s elisions and erasures as he challenges Achcar. This essay should not be read as an endorsement of Achcar’s work. Until further updates of course)

A Garden In Shigar Or Unexpected Pakistan

In Essays Related To Pakistan, Just Fun Stuff, Photography, The Daily Discussion on December 9, 2010 at 5:30 pm

From the introduction to the film at the Women’s Voices Now Film Festival:

(2010) Nusrat, Khezran, Zakia, Asiya and Sajida are five young women from the scenic Shigar Valley in the mountainous northern areas of Pakistan. As interns with the Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan (AKCSP), their project is to landscape the Abruzzi secondary school’s garden in the village of Sainkhor, Shigar, Baltistan. Tahereh, their guide and mentor, has come all the way from Los Angeles, California, to teach the women the principles of design and landscaping. In learning these skills to transform a rubble strewn field into a one-of-a-kind teaching garden, these women sow the seeds for their own transformation.