Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

Before The Death Of Body And Tongue…

In Poetry, The Daily Discussion on February 25, 2011 at 9:41 am

Speak, your lips are free.
Speak, it is your own tongue.
Speak, it is your own body.
Speak, your life is still yours.

See how in the blacksmith’s shop
The flame burns wild, the iron glows red;
The locks open their jaws,
And every chain begins to break.

Speak, this brief hour is long enough
Before the death of body and tongue:
Speak, ’cause the truth is not dead yet,
Speak, speak, whatever you must speak.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz

For the Libyans struggling to break free. My heart, my soul resides with you at this moment. I wish I was there in person.

I Must Have Died And Gone To Heaven Or They Are Discussing Books And Interviewing Writers On TV!

In Book Responses, Journalism, Readings, Writers on February 25, 2011 at 9:38 am

Idea Of India Project Update: Staring At The Many Faces Of Doubt – Some That Cripple And Others That Inspire

In Musings On Confusions, Photography, The Daily Discussion on February 13, 2011 at 8:57 am


If there is one word that can capture how I feel as I return to India to continue work on the The Idea Of India project, then it is the word ‘doubt’. I mean it in both the definitions of the word – as a noun that suggests a lack of conviction, and as a verb that suggests a state of mind that questions known truths.

I have arrived back in India after a near nine month hiatus where I suffered the wait to hear about my grant approval, and then another four-month emotionally difficult time waiting to hear about my research visa approval. Through that period I had to confront the reality (yes, I can be quite a pessimist) that either the grant will not come through, or that the research visas will simply be denied. I have to admit that the latter concern proved harder to confront, knowing that despite having the funds to continue the work, I may still be denied the chance to pursue what has become the longest, most intense photography project I have attempted to date.

But the gap of months has left me fragile. I now doubt my ability to produce what I have committed to producing. I am riddled by a fear that I no longer have the eye and the mind that compelled me to this work in the first place. I can’t even recall the methods I assumed to produced the last two years of work on this project. I look at out into the days ahead and feel that all creativity, all ideas, all possibilities lie over the horizon, and I must swim through an ocean filled with man-eating doubt to get to it. The fears and insecurities of the last few months now cloud my convictions, blur my vision, and as I sit in a cafe in Delhi trying to get past these days, these thoughts keep me from thinking about the work itself.

A few weeks ago I travelled to Rome and took my cameras along. I was hoping that I could use the trip as a way to re-acquaint myself with being a photographer and remind myself of the postures, concentration and effort required to produce this simple thing called a photograph. In Rome it became clear just how rusty I was, how out of practice. My framing was wrong, my timing completely off, and perhaps worst, my sense of perspective and object placement as seen by the camera itself. It was some days before a frame presented itself – one with the least division between that which is seen and that which is captured. It was perhaps the only frame that achieved an acceptable proximity.

Rome 2011 by Asim Rafiqui

Photographers rarely reveal their method, and certainly never the fears that underpin their efforts. Our obsessions with the image, with what sits within the frame, masks the sheer human frailty that fills the moments before and after. The frame never reveals the photographer and the walk she took to get to it. Or perhaps it is only I whose walk is so uncertain, so unclear, and so imprecise. So subservient to that reluctant friend called luck. Perhaps others are as confident, as precise, as sure as their images seem to suggest.

But I also realize that doubt – the verb, underpins and motivates the entire enterprise that is The Idea Of India. It was a confrontation with this sort of doubt that compelled me to begin this journey in the first place. It was doubt that made me question official narratives, nationalist histories, post-colonial historical constructions, sectarian dogmas and just-a-bit-too-well-defined ethnic and cultural categories. It was doubt that made me leave the conventions of photojournalism and practice a different eye. It is doubt that keeps me asking, searching, wondering and growing as an individual and as a photographer. It is doubt that defines the seemingly random, apparently inconsistent trajectory of this project – precisely as I want it to be. Since beginning this work in late 2008, it has been doubt that has taken me into new worlds, and new understandings. It is doubt that has taken me to new photographs. And in the end it is doubt that I want this work to infect others with, to give them nothing more than an equal love of this act which realizes that our worlds are far more beautiful, complex, complicated and varied than we were ever told.

Doubt – a noun and a verb and a desperate attempt to reconcile its two natures. Or at least I would like to – to somehow transform the one that cripples into the other that inspires. I am not sure how to do it. Or even whether I can.

Very soon I will simply run out of time and have to begin my work. Very soon I will have to force this tired body, this cowardly soul, to pick up the camera and thrust itself into the scream of life that is India. Perhaps there is no way around this. No way to overcome these doubts, or become one with them. Perhaps you just carry them, and carry on.

The Disowned & The Denied: Saiful Haq Omi’s Magnum Foundation Project On The Rohingya

In Photography on February 13, 2011 at 8:02 am
From Saiful Haq Omi's Rohingyan Project (Copyright Saiful Haq Omi)

From Saiful Huq Omi's Rohingya Project (Copyright Saiful Haq Omi)

Saiful Huq Omi’s work on the Rohingya has become the definitive photographic documentation of this people’s dispossession and dispersion. In the last two years alone it has been a finalist for the Alexia Foundation grant (2009, 2010), a finalist for The Aftermath Project grant (2009), received a Days Japan International Photography Context Special Jury Award in 2009, an Emerging Photographer grant from the Open Society Institute (2010), a Magnum Foundation Emergency grant (2010) and was chosen for the Moving Walls exhibition in 2010. In 2010 Omi was selected to the Joop Swart Masterclass at World Press Photo on the basis of the same project. And I suspect that the work will continue to receive accolades and recognition in the days to come.

So when Omi contacted me to say that he was turning to Kickstarter to help find further funding for this work, I was only too glad to feature it here. It is something I should have done earlier. Omi is taking this work into the diaspora communities of the Rohingya and this particularly funding effort is focused on his intent to travel to Malaysia to document the community there. This is an excellent extension of the work that originally began in the refugee camps and is growing to incorporate the broader experiences of dispersion, exile and dispossession.

The fund-raising campaign, titled The Disowned & The Denied is looking to raise a mere $5,500 and I encourage you to support this work.

We Are Asmaa Mahfouz And We Are Individual

In Our Wars, The Daily Discussion on February 12, 2011 at 6:39 am

Every revolution needs its mythologies, and this may be Egypt’s. But how beautiful, how strong, how clear, how determined, how independent and how human a myth is she!

Where we will go from here, I can’t tell. How many revolutionary movements have stumbled past the euphoria? But nevertheless, past failures cannot be a reason for cynicism and surrender. It is clear that in one powerful act, the Egyptians have erased all the racist, derogatory, reductive, inhuman, arrogant, and ignorant ideas of the Arabs that has pervaded the so-called West.

Here, in this block of streets that has now become immortal, a people have once again reminded the world of Arab history and the Arab determination to make their own history. For what racism, and orientalist tripe takes away from another people is their agency, their ability to define and influence their fate. Reductive ideas of another people imbue them with ‘essences’ and remove from their individuality. It is a reductive representation of a people who has crippled Europe’s ability to hold on to its humanity, its morality, its common sense. As Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül, said while addressing the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly:

Racism and xenophobia represent a major cause of concern …they lead governments and political elites to take a tough line on immigration. Roma and travelers, Muslims or Jews, and more generally, those who are different, experience hostility and social exclusion in many [European] societies.

There is a rise in electoral support for political parties which portray immigration as the main cause of insecurity, unemployment, crime, poverty and social problems. The rise in popular fears about immigration and minorities has led to larger popular support for marginal political parties…

European Muslims have perhaps been more affected than others by these tendencies, particularly after the terrorist attacks since September 11 in New York, Madrid, Istanbul and London. Muslims in Europe are very diverse not only in their geographical origins and cultural heritage, but also in their ways of interpreting and practicing their faith.

Yet, there is a misperception to view these diverse communities as a unitary one defined by religion. This is fundamentally at odds with “European values”. It is the time to remember and honor those values.

Gül was reminding the European’s to see past the habit of attaching ‘essences’ to people, and to see them in their complexity, diversity, breath of history and at best, their individuality. All the things that we have refused to give to the Arabs. Just as we have denigrated their women by constantly presenting them as repressed, oppressed, singularly under the jackboot of the Arab man. And yet here they were suddenly on our television screens and our internet pages – on the forefront and as equal participants in the protests in Tahrir Square. The Arab woman – denigrated, repressed and erased by the paranoid obsessions of a Western people who consistently refuse them agency, individuality, complexity and completeness. The Arab woman has become beyond history, transformed into an object of European self-righteousness, and removed from life and from materiality. So maybe we could start here, with one woman, Dr. Aida Seif El-Dawla, and see here as an individual, and then begin to complete the story of the Arab woman

As Yasmine El Rashidi points out in a a piece in The New York Review Of Books:

Women had begun to take on a special importance in the protest movement, and over the weekend I watched hundreds of women circle Tahrir Square chanting for equality—most of them veiled. Men had stood aside, cheering them on. The last time Egypt had witnessed this was probably 1919, when the feminist Huda Sharaawi led a women’s march, also downtown, also by parliament, demanding the same. “It’s incredible,” the novelist Ahdaf Soueif, who was there, had told me. “We are seeing women being treated as citizens. In fact, we are thinking of issuing a statement, as women, asking to end this gender predicament once and for all.”

There have been a number of articles on the fact that women have been at the front line of these protests. You can see a few at Recent coverage of Egyptian women in protest can be found in a number of mainstream sources, including the Huffington PostNY TimesLA Times and Foreign Policy. Quite a change from what has been said about the Arab woman in the past.

These are activists fighting against a regime the West, and the Americans, have offered unquestioned support and succor for over thirty-five years! Dozens of women were attacked and beaten by pro-Mubarak groups during the protests. The women were there and on the front lines. Arab women, complete with their hijabs and other symbols of their apparent ‘backwardness’ and ‘repression’, fighting the powers of real political backwardness and repression.

An American commentator called this the first Arab revolution. There could not have been stupider, more ignorant comment. The Egyptian’s alone have consistently and repeatedly risen up against repression and occupation, and not just against European occupiers, but their own. They rose up against Napoleon’s army in 1798, fought the monarchy in 1881 and 1882, staged an insurrection against the British in 1919 and 1952, and rebelled against Sadat in the 1977 food riots and against Mubarak in 1986.

And now it is 2011.

The revolution is not just on the streets of Cairo, but also in the minds of so many commentators, pundits, intellectuals, writers, academics, and ordinary citizens, who finally see that history is being written, that the Arabs are going to write their own. Anyone who thinks that this moment in time will not have an impact on the realities on the ground in nations like Iraq where we applied some of our finest Orientalist simplicities and erasures, believing that ‘they’ had to be ‘taught’ civility, government and political manners at the point of a daisy cutter. It was with shame and disdain that we watched and heard the cowardly excuses and vagaries of the likes of Barack Obama, the hideous justifications for repression by Tony Blair and so many others who speak the language of rights, liberty and civility, but live lives of violence, inhumanity and bloodshed. They failed to realize that we have been watching, listening and understanding for hundreds of years. That their words, their carefully woven lies, have not worked for decades. And they will not in the future. The struggle will continue, just as it will here on the streets of Cairo.

The revolution may falter, may be usurped by other powers. But these people will be back. Again and again. We are writing our own history. And many more will remember the Asmaa Mahfouz and her gigantic voice in the annals of history than the pusillanimous niceties of our ‘great’ leaders, the dwarfs to history that they have shown themselves to be.

Today, we celebrate the Asmaa Mahfouz’s of this world. Thank you.

Stepping Out Into Their Dreams Or How Two Young Photographers Inspire

In Journalism, Just Fun Stuff, Photography, The Daily Discussion on February 11, 2011 at 7:20 am

She was a sales representative when I first met. Nadia Shira Cohen was introduced to me as the woman who would introduce me to editors in New York and help pass my work off as something worthy of being published. She actually managed to do this, and convince editors to give me work. But it was apparent from the moment we first met that simply helping SIPA Press sell images was not what she really wanted to do. Over the years we developed a friendship, trust and a shared conviction that where she had to be was out in the world, behind the camera, telling stories.

And today she is.

Nadia Shira Cohen is a young woman becoming a photographer and doing it in her own, individual way. On a recent visit to Rome, where she lives, it was so inspiring to listen to her talk about her projects and the stories she wanted to tell. Nadia has an amazing ability to find some fascinating stories, a fact borne out by the fact that she has managed to convince editors from Harpers, Vanity Fair and The New York Times to assign her to stories that she pitched to them. This is the first sign of a good photographer – an instinct for the story, the curiosity to explore it and the talent to sell it.

From the series 'Exodus' by Nadia Shira Cohen

Nadia is currently in Cairo, documenting the situation there for The Virginia Quarterly Review, providing images for The New Yorker amongst other magazines in the USA and in Europe. She has recently received a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant that will see her working in Europe just as soon as she helps topple the regime in Cairo. Not bad for someone who just a couple of years ago was still pawning around the works of others while dreaming of getting out there on her own.


Elliott Woods is a journalist. When I first met him two years ago he was young, passionate and determined to make a career as a writer. He and I were working together on a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant covering the consequences of Israel’s assault on Gaza, the operation known as Cast Lead. But just being the writer was not going to be enough for Elliott. He had his note pads, he did his journalist with determination and seriousness, but every day he would also go out with his cameras. As we worked in Gaza together Elliott continued to keep his pen and his shutter finger working. Very often the people we met thought that he was in fact the photographer, his digital gear representing his professionalism, while my little film cameras suggesting the intents of a tourist. The confusions aside, Elliott was serious about the photographs he was making, and it was obvious that this young journalists was determined to push his camera eye, and find a place for himself as a photojournalist as well.

He has managed to do just that. An extensive tour in Afghanistan has seen Elliott produce a wide range of work from the country, and to reveal himself to be a photographer and a story teller.

Afghanistan's Burned Brides By Elliott Woods

Elliott was selected for The Eddie Adams workshops in 2010. He is now also in Cairo, providing written and photographic reportage for The Virginia Quarterly Review. His recent work from Afghanistan has been published in a number of journals, including this essay in Mother Jones Magazine on burned brides which reflects Elliott’s growing photographic maturity and his passion for getting to stories.


I can’t say enough how inspiring it is to watch these two young photographers and their careers as they develop. I could not have been more than two years ago that they were stepping out into the field, both chasing individual dreams and working hard – professionally and personally, to achieve their goals in what can only be described as difficult industry conditions. Today here they are out there, traveling, exploring, pitching work and finding ways to live the lives that define them. I wish them more success, and more possibilities.

Elliott was generous enough to write to me from Cairo to tell me that he has appreciated my support for his work over the years. Nadia too has always been generous in suggesting that I have in some fashion given her support during this period. But frankly I want to remind both Nadia and Elliott that watching them out there, working, producing, chasing, growing and doing so with passion and joy remains an important inspiration for me. It is the conversations that I have with young photographers like them that keep me going as well, the help me cut past the cynicism and exhaustion and find again the joy of this act called photography. As I land here in India, my cameras once again in my hands, I am strengthened by the knowledge that I am part of a community of individuals who are serious and inspired. Thank you.

Suheir Hammad…Need I Say More

In Israel/Palestine, Our Wars, Poetry, Writers on February 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Thanks to PULSE.

TEDWomen seems to recognize that a woman’s voice demands its own stage. Once you listen to some of the speakers you find a refreshingly interesting set of perspectives. Certainly, as you listen to Suheir Hammad you find something missing from so much our blathering pundits, intellectuals, politicians, military ´boys & girls´: courage, clarity and conviction.

Here are the words

I will not
dance to your war
drum. I will
not lend my soul nor
my bones to your war
drum. I will
not dance to your
beating. I know that beat.
It is lifeless. I know
intimately that skin
you are hitting. It
was alive once
hunted stolen
stretched. I will
not dance to your drummed
up war. I will not pop
spin beak for you. I
will not hate for you or
even hate you. I will
not kill for you. Especially
I will not die
for you. I will not mourn
the dead with murder nor
suicide. I will not side
with you nor dance to bombs
because everyone else is
dancing. Everyone can be
wrong. Life is a right not
collateral or casual. I
will not forget where
I come from. I
will craft my own drum. Gather my beloved
near and our chanting
will be dancing. Our
humming will be drumming. I
will not be played. I
will not lend my name
nor my rhythm to your
beat. I will dance
and resist and dance and
persist and dance. This heartbeat is louder than
death. Your war drum ain’t
louder than this breath.