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The Facing Change Collective And Why It Is Not Like The Farm Security Administration

In Photography, The Daily Discussion on June 22, 2011 at 8:59 am

A new photographer’s collective takes on America’s social deprivations and economic struggles. Facing Change describes itself as a non-profit collective of dedicated photojournalists and writers coming together to explore America and to build a forum to chart its future.

They have recently announced a collaboration with the Library of Congress. My friends at the wonderful dvafoto recently wrote about this. The official Library of Congress statement announcing the collaboration likened the efforts of this new generation of American photographer’s work, to that of an earlier, justifiably famous, group of photographers who worked for what was then called the Farm Security Administration. It said that:

Facing Change … is a contemporary counterpart to the work done in the 1930s and 1940s by photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration, a federal project that documented the experiences of Americans at all economic levels during the Great Depression and World War II.

I respectfully disagree.

You see, the words ‘…a federal project‘ in the statement above caught my eye. These three words tell us so much about how we are no longer in the social, political and cultural world of the 1930s, and how in fact, this new group of talented and committed photographers faces a challenge far greater than anything the FSA group of photographers ever did.

The FSA efforts involved a group of photographers who went on to make some of the most iconic images of America in the depression years. The works they produced went on to influence almost every photographer who came later, and how issues of poverty, famine, and social deprivation were depicted for decades to come. Some would argue that the visual language they created remains the definitive measure of how such issues and stories need to be depicted. Photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, and many others, under the guidance of Roy Stryker, the FSA information division, set out to show America to Americans. The works produced by the FSA photographers remains a crucial if not one of the most significant photographic documents of American history if not photographic history. 

But the Farm Security Administration’s photographic program was a government supported project, with the explicit aim of creating a visual documentation of the conditions of Americans, and providing a powerful argument for the social and institutions changed that would enable the New Deal to be pushed through. It was part of a number of programs tried out by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, a federal program. Roy Stryker, the director of FSA’s photographic documentary effort, was a man who had more than a little influence on how the photographers worked in the field. More importantly, he was a Columbia University trained economist, with a stark understanding of how photography and economics can work together to make specific points. In fact, he had used photography in his work economic works. His involvement with this group of photographers was close and immediate. He worked with them on everything from the stories they covered, to the themes they needed to explore. He ensured that America’s publications made their pages available for the presentation of this work. He knew what he was looking for, and his photographers knew the kinds of works that had to be produced to make the political argument Roosevelt’s government was trying to make as it fought to push through radical new legislation that would lead to the New Deal.

Few remember the radical and transformative effect and intent of the New Deal. It’s a subject that warrants an entirely separate post. Suffice it to say, that it was a period of concentrated and determined federal intervention to chart a new economic and social course for American. It gave birth to such important programs as Social Security Systems, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the (now largely castrated but more needed than ever) Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). It also gave birth to the unique Works Progress Administration (WPA) which supported artists, writers, painters, and other creative individuals with subsidies and commissions.

The publication world was also very different. The photographic works produced received massive publication support. Stryker used the media, and the media collaborated closely with him by giving the stories being produced about American’s economic and human struggles mass coverage. It was a time when media offered stories and images of change, confronting the citizens of the country with a view of their fellow citizens that was aimed to moving them to action.

It was also a time of some of the greatest American literature – Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, E Wilson, West to name just a few. The Federal Writers Program was in effect – yet another federal effort to raise awareness of the plight of the Americans and the political, legislative and economic changes that had to be implemented to lift the country from its economic depths. Steinbeck, Aiken, Bellow, Cheever, Ellison, Terkel, Wright, West were just some of the amazing writers who worked for this program.

It was a world – political, cultural, artistic, and social, completely different from what we face in American today. The FSA photographers were producing works in a political and social atmosphere that was supporting their projects, responsive to their depiction of America, anxious to read and understand it through a news media that was anxious to publish it. It was a time when there were politicians, academics, artists, writers, painters, editors, journalists, photographers, house wives, congressmen and women, social workers, and ordinary citizens who believed in social change, in radical involvement of government in directing and building the nation, on the responsibility of the individual to the collective.

We no longer live in that world. The photographers of Facing Change must face an America that is politically and culturally the polar opposite of the one the FSA photographers faced. The Facing Change effort is being initiated in a time when there is little or no political support for social welfare intervention or federal focus on the needs of America’s working class. It is a time of the individual over the public. It is a time of wealth over welfare. It is a time of the corporate elite, whose interests are overwhelmingly served by our political leaders and done so at the overt detriment of our ordinary citizens. It is a time when our media outlets are busy producing entertainment and voyeurism, refusing to see their responsibility to the citizenry and the Republic. Owned largely by corporations, or trading on the stock exchanges, our news papers and news magazines are beholden to the marketplace priorities of their owners, and the profit/return algorithms of their accountants. In their pages the intolerable, not-so-beautiful American working class can only spoil the appeal of the Photoshop-perfect fashion models and always-smiling American mall shopper. In their pages today, they justify trillions for wars, while insisting further cuts for programs for our citizens. It is a time when our political leaders are more interested in games of violence, racism, petty posturing and cozying up to corporate power. It is a time when citizen intervention in government affairs or a demand for accountability of our leaders, is considered treason. It is an American whose collective idea of itself is not the struggling working class, but the individual corporate elite, jet-setting across the globe, consuming at the boutiques of SoHo, New York, and partaking of the consumerist pleasures and luxuries that only excess money and excess acquisitiveness can offer. It is an America where we no longer produce important writers, merely navel gazing ones. Just look at the collective works of the modern giants of American literature like Roth, Updike, DeLillo, Pynchon and you will see writers who refuse to engage with American realities and American social concerns. They are just in a world of their own, completely insular, and completely indifferent.

This is a new America.

Unlike the FSA, which was a program sanctioned and supported at the highest levels of government that consisted of people attempted radical social and economic change in a struggling America, Facing Change is largely a grass-roots efforts in an atmosphere of the highest level of government indifference and impotency in the face of a struggling America. In many ways I believe Facing Change may be the braver effort given the world in which it has been given birth, and the world into which it must now fight to have its works seen, published, promoted, discussed and acted on. The FSA was near propaganda, while Facing Change is activism, and hence more democratic, and in a political world that is increasingly less democratic, a more difficult effort.

So I will, as I said before, respectfully disagree with the Library of Congress. The importance and relevance of photography comes from the social and political context in which it is produced. Mere documentation does not make it important. It can make it a record, but it cannot make it relevant. When Helena Zinken of the Library of Congress states that “we feel confident that t…he documentation provided in these contemporary photographs will be treasured by historians, photographers and the public—much as the FSA collection, which arrived newly minted back in the 1940s, is treasured by all those groups today,” she forgets that it was not documents of history alone that the FSA set out to produce, but documents of immediate political and social change. That the importance of the FSA effort was in its intent, its use, and its impact on political, economic, and social realities of America. It changed the world we lived in and we never looked back.

That impact on the world is what made FSA the amazing and important effort that it is now rightfully seen to be. Whether Facing Change becomes that amazing and important effort, the equivalent of the FSA, is less a matter of photographic skill and documentation, but about the ways in which we can work to link their stories and images to political action. This is the key challenge of the moment, and the Library of Congress can do much more I believe to help make this happen. This work has to transform political will in an America where political will is today confused with political wealth.

This is a brave project, and it is a talented group of photographers. I can’t think of a better collective with a stronger commitment to the nation and her citizens. Their individual works point to their commitment and determination. I can only wish them well, and say that I write this post out of respect for what they are trying to do, and to remind us that they are doing it against some of the greatest odds we as citizens have ever faced. The challenges they will encounter in getting their works to make a difference, is the same challenge we citizens face today in getting our politicians to give a damn about our public and social welfare.

I wish the photographers of Facing Change all the luck in the world. Theirs is not an enviable task.

Delhi Gets A Major Photo Festival And It Is Inviting Submissions

In Just Fun Stuff, Photography, Photography Workshop, The Daily Discussion on June 15, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Delhi gets its first major photo festival, and they are inviting submissions. The final pieces are still being put together, including the list of workshops and seminars so I will not say much more than that.

The organizers have been very generous and invited me to present my work from India, focusing on how the project idea came about, how I have pursued it over the last three years, where I have sought funding for it, and how it is being executed in the field. I have also been asked to present a discussion with two other photographers (the list is being finalized) on how to conceive, propose, fund, plan, structure and execute long-term photography projects. The focus of the seminar will be on new and non-traditional ways of finding support and the three participating photographers will talk about their experiences with their own projects. Finally, I have also promised to make myself available for random meetings under various trees and stairwells of the India Habitat Center (the site of the festival) for those who wish to engage in a more one-on-one discussion about their projects, portfolios or even their personal life. Its just the kind of guy I am.

As submissions are still being accepted, I encourage everyone to send in their works. This is the festival’s first year, but nevertheless I am confident that it will be quite a production and just simply a fun event to participate in. Given the breath of works being produced in India, it promises to reveal new talent, and surprising new stories from a country everyone thinks they know, and yet which never fails to surprise them.


Silent No Longer Or Photojournalists Take On Poverty In America

In Journalism, Photography, The Daily Discussion on June 12, 2011 at 7:21 am

In a post titled The Strange Silence Of The Conscience that I wrote over a year ago I lamented that:

As I look across the recent photojournalism awards, and scan for works in newspaper websites, I see a dearth of serious and committed interest in the hollowing out of America. There are a few stories here and there, a large number based on news reports about the health care debate and the foreclosure crisis. Matt Black has been working away with his usual tenacity and dedication. But this is far, far more than about a news blip, or a protest march, or the foreclosure of a home or two. It is about a fundamental surrender of government and national responsibility towards the very citizens both are supposed to serve. It’s about finding ourselves in this strange, irresponsible, unconscionable and immoral place in history where we can approve billions for foreign wars – illegal, unjust and paranoid as they are, and yet fight tooth and nail to stop even pennies for the care of our own.

Pointing to a series of social and economic statistics,I argued that the silence of the photographers was confusing and disappointing. There just did not seem to be as many people looking back at ourselves, at what was happening at home, while so many were running into the coddling embrace of our military to help depict illegal wars and war crimes as campaigns of liberation and freedom. We seem to have an infinite pool of financial and legislative resources to throw at wars, the security state, the handful of financial goons on Wall Street and its cohorts.

So it is with some pleasure and surprise that I learned about the collective work of the photographers Danny Wilcox Frazier, Jon Lowenstein, Brenda Ann Kenneally, Eli Reed, Andrew Lichtenstein, Richard Sennott, Steve Liss and Stephen Shames have come together to produce the project AmericanPoverty.org. And I can’t be happier to be proven wrong.

The shamelessness of an elected administration, one under the leadership of a man we pinned so many hopes on, that continues to pursue fantasies of global domination, regime change and Sisyphean attempts to eliminate various proper nouns while our citizens face dire choices and futures is simply staggering. These duffers (I have to thank the Pakistani writer/journalist Mohammed Hanif for reminding me of this fine word) are not only irresponsible, immoral and reprehensible, but reflect the stupidity of public politics and government that has become our modern reality.

It is simply unconscionable to allow such disparity, inequality and injustice to exist within our borders. It is unconscionable that this social and economic deprivation is not the only issue our politicians and power mavens are talking about. But it is clear that there is a direct correlation between the increasing resort to a rhetoric of fear and paranoia, and the abnegation of responsibility towards our citizenry that most all politicians now demonstrate. It isn’t a lack of ideas  – even a cursory look at the recent writings of Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz or even the more conservative Robert Reich will reveal, but a lack of interest. I say lack of interest rather than lack of will because it is clear that money, greed, narcissism and careerism are the main determinants of our political landscape today.

This is a brave effort on the part of this photographers collective. It is an important effort. And I think that is what I most like about the work. It is important. It is important in that it is attempting to create a dialogue that does not exist in our mainstream ideas of our selves. It is important because too often we are told that poverty is penance, and not a manufactured social consequence of policies and priorities. Since the years of the hideous Bill Clinton – a man who most still fail to realize was the most Republican President we ever had, we have been brow beaten into accepting that the poor are the cause of their own deprivation, thus allowing our policy makers off the hook for supporting social, economic, corporate and political institutions that manufacture and sustain poverty amongst certain segments of our society.

Poverty is manufactured. It is a construction of society. It is made. I know this from my work in Pakistan, Haiti, India and other nations where we have come to expect poverty. So it is wonderful to see a group of talented and clearly passionate photographers, with deep connections within the communities they are documenting, attempting to raise these realities and present them to us. And possibly help us realize that there are connections that have to be made between our policies in Washington D.C. and our poverty in Washington D.C. and elsewhere. Look at these stories and tell me that it is acceptable that we continue to fund wars (note, we are escalating Libya and Yemen as I write this!), bail-out criminal and irresponsible corporations, cut crucial educational funds and yet turn to our own citizens and say ‘Hey, its your fault and if we help you we will set a bad precedence of dependency!’ Our social welfare programs for corporate interests retain their trillions of dollars, while our social welfare programs for our citizens continue to be cut each week.

This cannot continue.

Matt Black’s The People Of The Clouds

In Photography on May 25, 2011 at 8:53 pm

From People Of The Clouds by Matt Black

Matt Black‘s project People Of The Clouds may be one of the most intelligently thought through pieces of photographic work I have seen in a long time. I just wanted to say that simply and clearly. It is one of the first projects I have seen where a photographer explicitly attempts to explore the (blatantly obvious, but rarely acknowledged) connections between our modernity here, and their deprivations there.

As he explains on his KickStarter page for The People Of Clouds project, that the region of Mixteca where the work is based is…

At its heart, it’s a culture of the land, and corn. Along the region’s hillsides, it is still possible to glimpse ancient terraces, canals, and runoff channels that protected the Mixteca’s rich but fragile soil, and nourished its inhabitants, for thousands of years.

But today, these ancient farming traditions have been lost, replaced by chemical fertilizers, hybrid seeds, and herbicides, the trifecta of modern agriculture heavily promoted in indigenous communities by the Mexican government and international charities as part of the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s…Today, much of the Mixteca has been declared an “Ecological Disaster Zone,” the result of unchecked erosion, deforestation, and soil exhaustion…Far from sparking a Green Revolution, the industrial farming techniques prescribed to the Mixtecs have resulted in their becoming unable to even keep themselves fed.

Nearly a quarter million Mixtecs have emigrated to the US. Some villages have lost as much as 80% of their population and have become little more than ghost towns.

There is a simple, clear, connection between migration, the destruction of rural lives, the gods of modernity and their presumptions of infallibility. It reminded me of something that Amitava Kumar highlighted in his book Passport Photos when talking about NAFTA, its consequences for Mexican citizens, in particular the rural citizens, the need to reveal the economic and social connections that are frequently veiled by mainstream media. He quotes Nikki Fortunato Bas,of the Political Ecology Group, from the report New World Border:

In terms of immigration, I think of of the things people aren’t really grasping is that the US plays a really large role in forcing people into migration. You know, NAFTA alone has displaced, I think, 300,000 Mexican farm workers. The GATT has also played a role in destabilizing local economies and forcing people into migration. So, when the US starts scapegoating immigrants for our problems, they have to really look and see what is driving people to come to this country.

Matt Black seems to want to help us understand precisely this fact: that what we do here, affects what they can do there.

This is a powerful, insightful and beautifully human piece of work.

I am just thrilled to back it on KickStarter, and anxious to see its evolution.

The Most Beautiful Girl They’ve Seen Or The Embedded Photojournalist Gets Picked Up!

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, Photography on May 24, 2011 at 9:33 pm

Creative Common Copyright Fab34

I have argued this again and again, and have been reviled and criticized for it again and again. And yet, nothing produced by any of the many number of reporters and photojournalists who have chosen to embed with the US military in Iraq or Afghanistan has convinced me to change my mind that embedded journalism is many things but never journalism.

It has been with nothing but great dismay that I have watched photojournalism’s highest awards and recognitions go to work that was produced in conditions and restrictions that we would have denigrated and mocked had they been imposed by one our ‘flavor of the year’ enemy states. I doubt that any reportage done from an embed with the Soviet Army that invade Afghanistan in 1979 would have been considered a crucial and appropriate documentation of the war in Afghanistan. And yet, we are ourselves happily convincing ourselves that ‘our’ boys are in fact producing crucial and appropriate documentation of our wars.

I was reminded of all this as I read a fascinating and funny piece by Peter Van Buren in Le Monde Diplomatique called ‘The War Lovers’ where he begins by asking the most relevant question we often avoid:

What is it about the military that turns normally thoughtful journalists into war pornographers? A reporter who would otherwise make it through the day sober spends a little time with some unit of the U.S. military and promptly loses himself in ever more dramatic language about bravery and sacrifice, stolen in equal parts from Thucydides, Henry V, and Sergeant Rock comics.

I have made my own arguments about the embed approach in a number of pieces, including The Transformation Of Pathology Into Pathos Or The Military Does What It Does And It Does It Well, and Wrapping Photographers Into The Packaging Of War, and a partial tongue-in-cheek piece called How We Refused To Embed With Brittany Spears, and Fighting Ghosts And Selling The Good War Or Why Are The Toy Soldiers On The Front Lines!, and others of course.

But there is a fascinating insight in Van Buren’s piece that is worth thinking about. He points out that in fact the embedded reporter has tremendous access within the military, to its soldiers, and even to classified details coming across over the wire. They also have more liberty to report what they saw than we may imagine. And yet, few do. Van Buren’s argument for why the military can allow this to happen and not worry is striking, pointing out that

…the military wasn’t worried..[b]ecause its officials knew perfectly well that for reporters the process was — not to mince words — seductive…[E]embedding with the military felt like being invited in — no, welcomed — for the first time by the cool kids.

And the camaraderie and companionships that develop ensure the appropriate voice and the appropriate check on serious reporting. As Van Buren continues:

You go out with the soldiers and suddenly you’re riding in some kind of armored, motorized monster truck. You’re the only one without a weapon and so they have to protect you. Instead of making fun of you and looking at you as if you were dressed as a Naughty Schoolgirl, they’re cool with it. Bored at only having one another to talk to, fellow soldiers who eat the exact same food, watch the exact same TV, and sleep, pee and work together every day for a year, the troops see you as quite interesting. You can’t believe it, but they really do want to know what you know, where you’ve been, and what you’ve seen — and you want to tell them.

For women, it works similarly, but with the added bonus that, no matter what you look like, you’re treated as the most beautiful female they’ve seen in the last six months — and it’s probably true.

Of course, we reporters and photojournalists never talk about this. As always, there is such little self-reflection within the practitioners of the craft that it is staggering to think that they are being asked to go out and document the world for us. In fact, in a world drowning in images, they may be producing the permanent and definitive images of a world. And it is an image where the ‘other’ is increasingly and consistently seen through the sights of a gun. Or, as Van Buren points out, through …wet dreams passed on to the public.

Crossing Boundaries Or Where I Realize That Some Of The Most Creative Photographers Are Not Even Photographers

In Photography, Readings, The Daily Discussion on May 12, 2011 at 3:01 pm

The borders this book crosses again and again are also those where academic writing meets popular journalism, and political poetry encounters the work of documentary photography.

Amitava Kumar, Passport Photos

This [After The Last Sky: Palestinian Lives by Edward Said & Jean Mohr] is not a normal tandem of word and image, neither a coffee table book with a long, glorified caption nor a work of prose propped up here and there by sheaves of shiny pictures. Mr. Said writes to the photos so assiduously and with such effect as to make one powerful essay. And at times, we realize with a sobering lurch, he writes not to the pictures but from them.

Richard Ben Cramer , Acts Of Continuance, The New York Times November 9th, 1986

When Professor Ammiel Alcalay recently emailed me to inform me that his new book had just been published and that I may find it interesting,I assumed that it would be a work related to the question of the Sephardim. Professor Alcalay and I had recently been discussing my intention to produce a work that explores the lost heritage and last remaining vestiges of Jewish community in Northern Africa and the Levant. But I was surprised when I read the back pages of that work that Professor Alcalay had chosen to…

…comb through photographs, correspondence, memorabilia, journal entries, and newspaper clippings from the era, and incorporated them into [a] book; the result is a personal investigation into the relationships of context to text, memory to nostalgia, and present attention to the multiple traces of the past.

Professor Alcalay had emailed to tell me that he had in fact published a photography book!

Neither Wit Not Gold by Ammiel Alcalay

Even a cursory examination of Professor Alcalay’s work reveals the fascinatingly creative ways in which personal photographs, archival images are used to recover memories, provoke ideas and illuminate imaginations. This work of a poet, historian, translator, writer, journalist and academic, contains more complex, more creative and more experimental play with photography and text than anything I have seen from the world of the ‘professional’ photographer. In fact, even the format and scale of the work is such that it invites you to lift it, page through it, bend its corners, write within it and simply carry it about.

Sample Page, Neither Wit Nor Gold by Ammiel Alcalay

All things that so many ‘pristine’ works of photography do not allow you to do. Alcalay’s work is a work for the public, and one designed to encourage engagement and entanglement. It refutes the idea that has become so popular these days of designing and producing photography books as ‘works of art’ or ‘collectables’ that are simply vanity plates for the desperate. Large, heavy, expensive and hence inaccessible to the general public and the casually interested, they are often as useful and interesting as an exquisite glass vase. Nice to look at, but damn if I want to stand anywhere near it.

The same desire of accessibility and public reach can be seen other photography works produced by those the ‘community’ would label as non- photographers. One such work that comes to mind is photographer Jean Mohr and academic/critic Edward Said’s remarkable collaboration After The Last Sky: Palestinian Lives. It is a work that I have discussed on a number of occasions in this blog itself.

After The Last Sky by Edward Said & Jean Mohr

Edward Said, reacting to a United Nations decision to remove all text from an exhibition of Jean Mohr’s images of Palestinian refugees that was to be displayed in the main hall of the UN Headquarters, decided to engage the images and use them to construct a textual response. As he states in the introduction to the book:

The whole point of this book is to engage this difficulty, to deny the habitually simple, even harmful representation of Palestinians, and replace them with something more capable of capturing the complex reality of their experience. Its [the books] style and method – the interplay of text and photos, the mixture of genres, modes, styles – do not tell a consecutive story, nor do they constitute a political essay….

Many Palestinian friends who say Jean Mohr’s pictures thought that he saw us as no one else has. But we also thought that he saw us as we would have seen ourselves – at once inside and outside our world. The same double vision informs my text.

There is a remarkably insightful revelation of the close interplay between the image and the text in Said’s introductory essay to this book. It is precisely as the reviewer Ben Cramer of The New York Times pointed out, that Edward Said is writing ‘…not to the pictures, but from them.’ This is perhaps one of the earliest challenges to the tiresomely predictable use conventional photojournalism, editorial and mass media publications and even curatorial spaces have made of the craft of photography.

A similar thought about the crossing of boundaries – of the mixing of modes, genres and methods, is revealed in Amitava Kumar’s brilliant and piercing work Passport Photos.

Passport Photos by Amitava Kumar

Here, yet again, we see the theme of crossing boundaries. In fact, Kumar’s book deals with the immigrant experience in the West and attempts to add the narratives and histories that are typically missing from the artifacts of the nation state: the national ID, the passport, etc. His is an attempt to return the complete humanity behind an individual labelled as ‘alien’ or ‘immigrant’. As Kumar himself states in the book’s Preface:

[The book attempts to]…restore a certain weight of experience, a stubborn density, a life to what we encounter in newspaper columns as abstract, often faceless, figures without histories.

These are not merely pretensions. These works of Alcalay, Said/Mohr and Kumar are attempts to arrive at new, more insightful truths about our modernity and about those we frequently choose to (inadvertently or intentionally) silence. Their resort to using many different forms of expression – photographs, essays, poetry, journalism, personal journal entries etc. are an attempt to break down the clichés and lazy generalities that frequently pass as ‘truths’ in media and also very often in academia. To break down these clichés these writers chose to break down the walls that separate disciplines, and producing works that go beyond our obvious expectations about use, insight and provocation.

The photographer Oliver Arthur and I recently had a brief discussion where we touched upon the fact that most photographers tend to narrow their ‘influences’ to the world of ‘officially’ sanctioned photography. That is, our inspirations tend to be just other photographers. But it is obvious that many outside this small, cloistered and frequently navel-gazing world are producing some amazingly interesting, creative, and unique works of photography that question the very idea that photography ought to be seen as a separate craft, art or creative act. Oliver herself is, as she told me, working to bring more text into her work. Or, as she put it, more text into the very way in which her work is constructed, her photographs seen and captured. The same sentiments underpin my work in India.

Works such as After The Last Sky remind us of the possibilities that come from collaborating with different forms and methods. The also remind us that we as photographers are also storytellers, with the possibility (if not always the creativity or the intelligence) to turn to methods outside of the technical, to create their narratives. If photojournalism and documentary photography seemed trapped in tiresome, repetitive, and clichéd forms (as I have frequently argued on this blog as such as here, here and here amongst other pieces), perhaps it is because we have forgotten that over time a photograph can become more a metaphor than an actual, complete and comprehensive reality. That is, the most popular and generically popular images (think National Geographic style, famine photography from Africa, prostitutes in Asia, a drug addict in Afghanistan etc. ) work as metaphors do – they transform ideas into (pre-packaged, commonly understood) images. Our challenge remains to redefine these metaphors and we cannot do it through more of the same. It is writers such as Kumar, Alcalay and Said remind us that in fact the real possibilities of photographs to offer new insights, to challenge conventions and enforce new understandings lie in their interplay with words, and their openness to being informed with content from without. The link between a well worn metaphor and its image has to be broken.

Jean-Bertrande Aristide Returns

In Journalism, Our Wars, Photography on March 22, 2011 at 4:28 pm

It remains one of the most difficult stories I have attempted to do. In 2005 writer Malcolm Garcia and I traveled to Port Au Prince to document the targeting of pro-Aristide activists and Lavalas supporters in the weeks after Jean Bertrande-Aristide was forcibly removed from power. The collaboration of the French and American governments in the illegal and violent removal of a sitting, democratically elected President of a sovereign nation was blatant and well documented.

mesnal delarge's sister reacts after seeing the body of her brother who was shot and killed while marching in a pro-aristide rally in port au prince. the haitian national police has frequently fired upon peaceful demonstrators, often right in front of MINUSTAH troops copyright asimrafiqui 2006

The work was exhibit at Visa Pour L’image in 2006 and I remain grateful to Jean-Francois Leroy for giving me a platform to speak about the human rights violations and outright assassinations that our governments (French and American) were actively collaborating in. It was a platform denied to the work by all the major newspapers and newsmagazine in the USA that I had approached.

Jean-Bertrande Aristide has today, after nearly seven years in exile, returned to Haiti. Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow! (who else!) has been with him to document this historic moment.

In my original introduction to my project I wrote that:

In early 2005 I traveled to Haiti and found a reality that did not reflect what I had been led to believe. I witnessed an ongoing campaign of violence and repression by Haiti’s current leaders, installed by the USA and France, to eliminate the still vastly popular Lavalas (pro-Aristide) movement and its supporters. Hundreds of Lavalas activists lie without charge in jail while hundreds of others have been killed while protesting in the streets or during Haitian National Police (HNP) raids into strongly pro-Aristide neighborhoods. Entire communities suspected of pro-Aristide leanings have been surrounded by UN (MINUSTAH) and HNP checkpoints and the residents denied services like water and electricity.

And yet both the USA and France have stood firmly behind the ‘interim’ government. Recently the USA decided to restart economic and military aid to this government. This is in sharp contrast to its attitude towards the democratically elected President Aristide whom it placed under economic sanctions in 1995 and then worked tirelessly to topple by funding and courting his opponents. The sanctions withheld nearly $500 million from one of the poorest nations of in the Western Hemisphere and caused severe social and economic devastation in the country. At the same time the US government provided financial and political support to Aristide’s opponents and even arranged conferences in neighboring Dominican Republic for Aristide’s opponents to meet those from Washington who shared similar political views. As Amy Wilentz, a journalist with extensive experience in Haiti, wrote “In a country…where the military has been disbanded for nearly a decade, soldiers don’t simply emerge… they have to be reorganized, retrained and resupplied… and someone has to organize [them].

I admit that there was a strong element of dissent and protest in chosing to produce this work. Malcolm and I travelled to Haiti with no backing of any publication and worked there completely independently of any agency or institutional support. It was risky, and we did some pretty stupid things. Perhaps because we just did not realize what precarious situations we were getting ourselves into. Or perhaps because we were just stupid. Either way, I do remember this as one of the best collaborative experiences I have ever had with a writer. You can read about it in Malcolm’s piece called Descent Into Haiti which was published in April 2005 by The Virginia Quarterly Review. (Sadly the only time I am referred to in the piece, I come across as quite the moron! Malcolm and I are still friends!) Nevertheless, this project as perhaps one of the most demanding, difficult I have done. And one that I, despite its complete publication and distribution failure, remain very proud of.

Jean-Bertrande Aristide has returned to Haiti. And I have to admit, there is a triumphant smile on my face.

The Dissenting Photographer Or How American Photographers Turn To Intelligence In Times Of Intransigence

In Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Photography, The Daily Discussion on March 4, 2011 at 6:44 am

The image showed little, and yet said so much that it made me laugh. The first time I saw it I did not know who the photographer was, but some quick research revealed it to be no other than Tim Davis. The image, called Nixon Monument was sheer genius:

'Nixon Monument' from the series My Life In Politics by Tim Davis

And that is perhaps what defines Tim Davis’ work: a quiet, but rigorous intelligence that compels the viewer to read his images for deeper insight and critical commentary. The entire series called My Life In Politics (the title alone is so lovely!) is a searing look at the caricature of democracy that is the American political machinery. It captures brilliantly the public spectacle and the hollowing out of the intent and meaning of a democratic enterprise, and its reduction to theatre, and facade.

'One Nation...' from the series My Life In Politics by Tim Davis

An European photo editor I met at Visa Pour L’image some years ago pointed out that there was very little in the way of dissident and critical photography in America. Recently the same question came up in a conversation with students at a social science institute in India. I think that this is too simplistic an argument. American photographers have been speaking out and offering resistance to the mainstream radicalization and militarization of the American public and political space. Tim Davis’ work of course is an example of a photographer confronting the dimensions of America as he sees it, and pointing out the dangers of its slide towards extremist consumerism, war and comic book political dialogue.

We are living in times where dissent is understood to be treason, a conflation that of course serves the interests of the powerful. And America – despite its self-proclaimed image as a land of free speech and individual liberty, has a long history of confusing dissent with anti-Americanism, and proclaiming allegiance to the political agenda and programs  a sitting government, and its apparatchiks, rather than to the institutions and values of the republic. In particular, the American media has repeatedly chosen to adopt the prejudices and rhetoric of populism rather than fight to maintain a determined adherence to the values of free press that challenges power, protects public interests and maintains a near-fanatical independence from the influence of the powerful. Instead, we have a media today that is absolutely beholden to power, so much so that its practitioners actually prefer to ‘represent’ the perspectives of power and ‘protect’ their idea of American values over all else. And so in this space American photographers concerned about the infantilism and militarism that continues to plague our nation have had to adopt subtle, tangential means of dissent which can create some wonderfully clever and complicated works. They can’t scream, but whisper ominously.

Mitch Epstein has offered his dissent in his new work American Power. Epstein is another favorite of mine – smart, individual and focused and his new work offers a critical look at American life, lifestyle and presumptions of consumption that underpin its dependence on oil, coal and other extractive, environmentally destructive and politically distorting energy resources.

From Mitch Epstein's series 'American Power'

Mitch Epstein and writer Susan Bell have even gone so far as to create a website dedicated to asking the question What Is American Power? and as they state:

…heighten awareness of the toll that energy and consumption and production take on our economy, security, health and natural resources.

Anthony Suau’s Fear This remains one of the few works that attempted to speak out against America’s build up to the invasion of Iraq. I remember first seeing this work in a second-hand bookstore in New York and wondering if anyone would ever notice it. This was back in 2006 and those were dangerous times when even the fact that we knew our leaders were lying could not stop us from standing alongside them. Those who spoke out were marginalized as cranks, called anti-American, and simply ignored. To produce a work that showed us our ugliness, and the ease with which we were hypnotized towards violence by our politicians, military leaders and our mainstream media, took some courage. Given the crass jingoism and near-violent patriotism that has gripped the nation since the 9/11 attacks – an event that has become the justification for so many domestic and international injustices and criminal actions that it simply defies the mind, one can understand the need for prudence. However, the very meaning of dissent, the very necessity of loud criticism, is most clear when it is most dangerous.

From Anthony Suau's work Fear This

I also think of Paul Fusco’s quiet, but angry project called Bitter Fruit. I had the pleasure of speaking to Paul Fusco about this work when I met him for lunch in Perpignan in 2006. I remember him carefully explaining the anger that drove him out onto the streets of USA and towards family funerals in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and where else he could find information about them. I remember him telling me that it was the military who always prevented him from speaking to the families of the killed, though it seemed to him that the families in fact wanted to speak to him.

From the series Bitter Fruit by Paul Fusco

Nina Berman’s recent work Homeland on the militarization of the American public space, is another example of a photographer attempting to offer criticism and dissent, but doing it in her own quiet way, and turning out eyes towards things we ought to be concerned about.

From the series Homeland by Nina Berman

American photographers have to deal with a very American public and media environment which is largely conservative and non-confrontational. There are no mainstream dissident publications and certainly none that would offer the American public a critical viewpoint on issues that touch our very ideas of our selves and our patriotism. American photographers producing works that question the American way of life – the very way in the defence of which we justified the illegal invasions of other nations and the mass slaughter of other peoples, have to do so carefully. After all, much like those who confront religious fundamentalists, these photographers are questioning ideas and individuals who are equally unquestioning and intolerant of debate – the American patriot.

In the end it is producing some very intelligent and very interesting work. It is the work of thinking individuals, produced by creatively re-working the conventional ideas about how to cover our conflicts (no embedding here!), our politics and our demise as a nation that adheres to values that are universalist and human.

Sadly our most well-known photojournalists have completely failed to offer such perspective, preferring instead to offer simplistic, misleading and ultimately propagandist productions from behind embedded positions with the US military. Some are even busy as we speak documenting Middle East dictators, recasting them as ‘modern’ and ‘liberal’, at a moment when millions across the regions are reaching out to topple regimes of repression and violence. For most it has just been too easy to adopt this stance, to go along with the flow, to stop thinking and then veil the inherent laziness and intellectual cowardice of this approach under a language of ‘bearing witness’ or some other such inanity. It reminds me of what Mark Slouka said in a piece called  Democracy & Deference

What kind of culture defines “maturity” as the time when young men and women sacrifice principle to prudence, when they pledge allegiance to the boss in the name of self-promotion and “realism”? What kind of culture defines adulthood as the moment when the self goes underground? One answer might be a military one. The problem is that while unthinking loyalty to one’s commanding officer may be necessary in war, it is disastrous outside of it. Why? Because loyalty, by definition, qualifies individualism, discouraging the expression of individual opinion, recasting honesty as a type of betrayal. Because loyalty to power, rather than to what one believes to be true or right, is fatally undemocratic, and can lead to the most horrendous abuses.

As some of these ‘greats’ now celebrate their achievements on the platforms of world press awards or even at gala cinema events in Los Angeles, we citizens would do well to remember the other photographers who have chosen a more difficult, and more courageous path and are reminding us, in creative and intelligent ways, what in fact it means to be a citizen of a people’s republic.

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

Doubt.

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.