ExperimentalExperience

Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

I Find Myself Short Of Breath, Gasping For Air Or Fazal Sheikh Redesigns His Website!

In Journalism, Photography on January 20, 2011 at 7:21 pm

From Moksha by Fazal Sheikh

What has always impressed me about Fazal Sheikh is his intelligence and willingness to engage in the complete complexity of the human conditions he documents. There is no attempt to avoid the difficult, or to elide the embarassing. His eye is precise and spectacularly beautiful. His voice is balanced and calm, refusing to use hysteria or sensationalism to distract us. The issues are clearly offered, in their social, economic and historical difficulties, and with no interest in making them ‘entertaining’ or simple. This is absolutely stunning photojournalistic work and certainly some of the finest that is being produced today. Fazal’s eye is unique, his intelligence unencumbered by the need to appease or reduce. Fazal supports his photographs with text, testimonies and personal statements – a trait I love and respect. Fazal Sheikh’s three projects on India – Moksha, Ladli and The Circle, are absolutely remarkable productions, and worthy of having on the bookshelf. The book versions are stunning – beautifully printed, intelligently organized and exquisitely produced.

The Sirens That Sing Our Songs For War

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Our Wars, Photography on January 19, 2011 at 9:12 pm

Once he hears to his heart’s content, sails on, a wiser man.
We know all the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured
on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—
all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!

Odyssey 12.188–91

The confidential CIA memorandum, dated 11th March 2010 and titled Afghanistan: Sustaining West European Support for the NATO-led Mission-Why Counting on Apathy Might Not Be Enough, and made public thanks to the people at Wikileaks,  is quite explicit in recommending that the US administration and military pursue ‘media strategies’ that use the voices of Afghan women in:

…humanizing the ISAF role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory. Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women could help to overcome pervasive skepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission…

Media events that feature testimonials by Afghan women would probably be most effective if broadcast on programs that have large and disproportionately female audiences.

There is a tacit admission that the war effort and goals are unclear, and that public support remains low. There is a fear that underpins the memorandum that public support for the war is waning as the war’s objectives remain unclear and its goals appear impossible. The memorandum identifies other strategies that can be used to help bolster public support should a backlash against the involvement of European governments in the war itself. For example, it recommends highlighting:

  • …messages that illustrate how a defeat in Afghanistan could heighten Germany’s exposure to terrorism, opium, and refugees might help to make the war more salient to skeptics.
  • …the mission’s multilateral and humanitarian aspects.
  • … a message that ISAF benefits Afghan civilians and citing examples of concrete gains could limit and perhaps even reverse opposition to the mission. Such tailored messages could tap into acute French concern for civilians and refugees.

It was only a few months later that Time Magazine’s may have obliged the CIA when it offered us it’s egregiously exploitative piece on Afghanistan and the story of Aisha.

I had referred to it as ‘…one of the most blatant uses of photography as propaganda I have seen in a long time.’ Time Magazine’s issue of August 9th, 2010 prominently featured the mutilated face of a young Afghani woman called Aisha, with a headline that said ‘What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.’

The issue clearly implied, in the wonderfully simplistic, populist, feel-good-America and yet so infantile way as only Time Magazine can, that our military has been placed at the service of the Afghan people to protect their women and their rights.

Reacting to this crass conflation of imperialism and feminism, I argued in an earlier blog post titled The Spotlight Of Humanity Or How We Are Told To Look Only Where They Tell Us To Look that:

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

(Aside: I had given the photographer Jodi Bieber the benefit of the doubt and suggested that she did not know how her work was going to be used. Unfortunately I was wrong, as llistening to her talk about this work suggests that Jodi herself holds many of the very prejudices I had criticized about the magazine article itself for.)

It was only a few more weeks after which National Geographic Magazine offered their version of the same story, complete with the same faux-humanism and typical obsequiousness to the myth of American exceptionalism and moral righteousness that the magazine is now quite famous for.

National Geographic Magazine: Afghan Women

Did Time Magazine and others oblige the CIA consultants? We will never know, but its food for thought. And even more so as other publications continue to oblige us with the ‘humanitarian’ face of the war, carefully excising from our western and civilized eyes the violence that we are in fact inflicting on ‘the other’.

Thanks to the brilliant BagNewsNotes, my attention was drawn to this trio of embedded propaganda produced by three mainstream and popular photographers who have been assiduously and unquestioningly been presenting us with plenty of documentation of whitewashed wars from Iraq to Afghanistan.

And perhaps by no small coincidences, there is yet another piece on how the American’s are fighting ‘the good war’ against opium in Afghanistan in the latest issue of National Geographic Magazine where the story so carefully avoids mentioning role of the CIA and the United States in the growth of this insidious industry that the entire piece can’t even hold itself together in logic or meaning. The magazine’s version of Afghanistan’s last thirty years seems to suggest that the USA has never had an involvement in the region, and no hand in its current pathologies, violence, repressions and bloodshed.

National Geographic Magazine: Opium Wars

The National Geographic story excises from its readers awareness the fact that the United States and the Karzai regime are intrinsically linked to the opium growth and trade in Afghanistan. You would not know this from this piece by Robert Draper, but you would only have to look elsewhere, for example, to Tom’s Dispatch where Alfred McCoy, in a piece called Can Anyone Pacify the World’s Number One Narco-State? has a rather different take on the situation;

Opium is an illegal drug, but Afghanistan’s poppy crop is still grounded in networks of social trust that tie people together at each step in the chain of production.  Crop loans are necessary for planting, labor exchange for harvesting, stability for marketing, and security for shipment. So dominant and problematic is the opium economy in Afghanistan today that a question Washington has avoided for the past nine years must be asked: Can anyone pacify a full-blown narco-state?

The answer to this critical question lies in the history of the three Afghan wars in which Washington has been involved over the past 30 years — the CIA covert warfare of the 1980s, the civil war of the 1990s (fueled at its start by $900 million in CIA funding), and since 2001, the U.S. invasion, occupation, and counterinsurgency campaigns. In each of these conflicts, Washington has tolerated drug trafficking by its Afghan allies as the price of military success — a policy of benign neglect that has helped make Afghanistan today the world’s number one narco-state.

And you would certainly not know that our erstwhile ally, the illegal and unelected Hamid Karzai is deeply involved in this business, and yet he remains ‘our man’ in the country. As McCoy points out:

Indeed, opium’s influence is so pervasive that many Afghan officials, from village leaders to Kabul’s police chief, the defense minister, and the president’s brother, have been tainted by the traffic.  So cancerous and crippling is this corruption that, according to recent U.N. estimates, Afghans are forced to spend a stunning $2.5 billion in bribes. Not surprisingly, the government’s repeated attempts at opium eradication have been thoroughly compromised by what the U.N. has called “corrupt deals between field owners, village elders, and eradication teams.”

National Geographic Magazine works hard to blame it all on the Taliban. If nothing else, it is what the memorandum recommended.

What does embedding do to journalism? As Patrick Cockburn argued in a piece in The Independent, it simply distorts your view of the war, it convinces you that the only way to read the situation is through the lens of military action, and that the news is where the army takes you.

“Embedding” obviously leads to bias, but many journalists are smart enough to rumble military propaganda and wishful thinking, and not to regurgitate these in undiluted form. They know that Afghan villagers, interviewed in front of Afghan police or US soldiers, are unlikely to say what they really think about either. Nevertheless, perhaps the most damaging effect of “embedding” is to soften the brutality of any military occupation and underplays hostile local response to it. Above all, the very fact of a correspondent being with an occupying army gives the impression that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries which have endured 30 years of crisis and warfare, can be resolved by force.

And yet our ‘finest’ news publications continue to pursue this avenue exclusively, not even attempting to offer a perspective to either the Iraq or the Afghan conflict from outside the stifling sameness of the view from the military’s gilded window. As I learn that Nachtwey (someone who has determinedly covered America’s wars exclusively from the American side and not even attempted a balanced and journalistic documentation of its conflicts), Tyler Hicks and Louie Palu I can’t help but wonder what forces are compelling their employers to not just produce the same ‘humanitarian’ stories, but also work exceptionally close to eliminate any and all possibilities that we may see ‘the other’ and the horrors being inflicted on them by what is only the most powerful military force in the world fighting only some of the most impoverished and weak people in the world.

Revealing Histories Long Erased And Denigrated: Photographer Aaron Vincent Elkaim’s Attempt To Find Old Truths

In Israel/Palestine, Photography, The Daily Discussion on January 5, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Aaron Vincent Elkaim’s project on Morocco’s Jewish heritage immediately caught my attention not because of the photographs, but because of words that underpin the ideas and ideals of the project. These words immediately suggested a photographer of considerable intelligence and courage, and willing to accept and understand histories that today lie buried under propaganda, lies and sheer hypocrisy.

From The Series 'Jewish Morocco' By Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Aaron reveals a mind that is sharp, and honest, something he underlines in his statement on the Burn Magazine site that recently featured his work:

Protected under the Islamic Principle of Tolerance since the 7th century, they flourished, holding high positions in trade and government.  The Star of David was a symbol shared by all Moroccans, appearing on currency and even the national flag. During the Holocaust, when asked for a list of Jews, King Mohammed V declared, “We have no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccan citizens.”  Jews and Muslims were united by culture and kingdom.

Following World War II, Zionists recruiters targeted Moroccan Jews to populate the new State of Israel. Israel’s expansion marked the beginning of a Moroccan Jewish exodus. 300,000 Jews inhabited Morocco as of 1940; it was the largest Jewish population in the Arab World. Today, less than 4000 remain.

There is no bigoted resort to claims of ‘ancient hatreds’ or Arab anti-Semitism, or falsified histories of Jewish persecution in Muslim lands. In fact, I recently wrote a blog post called Seeing Europe Everywhere, Even In The Unfolding Of Another People’s History, where I question the false histories that attempt to convince us that the Arabs are the new anti-Semites.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim knows his history, and he knows also the tightly entwined cultural, political, social, intellectual and economic environment of the Arab Jews and their deep and important contributions to Arab societies and polity. As a man of Jewish descent, his is a voice truly essential and truly beautiful to find.

But these are inconvenient facts, as demonstrated by the reviews and reception of the works of people like Ammiel Alcalay, whose After Jew And Arab: Remaking Levantine Culture was received with tremendous scepticism and in other instances outright hostility.

After Jews And Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture by Ammiel Alcalay

But works such as Professor Alcalay’s remind us all that is shared and embroiled, rather than the histories that the nationalists and fundamentalists prefer to manufacture. Professor Alcalay explains his intentions about such works in an interview with Al-Jadid magazine:

It always helps to have a dream beyond the constant and unspeakable horrors so many people are subjected to. My work opens new space to forge alliances, even on a small-scale, but with a cold eye cast at the appalling state of things in general. As a critic, activist, writer, translator, and teacher I do have an effect on the way people who encounter me think. It might not be as significant as people in various kinds of life saving professions, but I think it has had an incremental effect in the world.

Indeed, the incremental effects are the long-lasting ones. I can only hope the same for Aaron Vincent Elkaim. These are histories that offer correctives to the nationalist and sectarian fantasies that have been created to justify division, occupation and violence. Whether Arabs or Jews, it is imperative that we begin to take back our lived heritage, our living memories and our genuine histories.

At the very least it is imperative that we begin to develop that ‘…an acute sense not of how things are separated but of how they are connected, mixed, involved, embroiled, linked.’ (Said, Edward (2001) ‘Nationalism, Human Rights & Interpretation’ in Reflections on Exile Granta Books (Page 430)) Projects such as Elkaim’s remind us of this involvement and link.

I look forward to the development of Elkaim’s work and only hope that it acts as an inspiration to others.

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.

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.

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.

I Was Once In Arkansas And Saw These Amazing Photographs Or Finding Treasures In Backwaters

In Just Fun Stuff, Photography, Photography Workshop, The Daily Discussion on November 21, 2010 at 2:55 pm

One word: Disfarmer

Disfarmer was the name adopted by the man originally named Mike Meyers. As explained on a website that now acts as a link to his archives:

…Mike expressed his discontent with his family and farming by changing his name to Disfarmer. In modern German “meier” means dairy farmer, and since he thought of himself as neither a “Meyer” nor a “farmer,” Mike Meyer became “dis”- farmer.

One of seven children of a German immigrant family, Disfarmer produce, in the backwaters of the Arkansas farming community, and at the height of the Depression era, some amazing portraiture. I think it is some of the most interesting, fascinating and intriguing portrait work I have ever seen. I can’t take my eyes off the details that seem to exist in these pictures.

Copyright disfarmer.com

Copyright disfarmer.com

There is considerable debate whether Disfarmer was a genius or just someone who careless made images of common folk at a time of great difficulty and deprivation in America. I doubt if we will ever know for he was an eccentric and a near recluse. What whatever it is that he did, he ended up with some amazing images.

Copyright disfarmer.com

Copyright disfarmer.com

Each portrait has a power, an energy, a presence, that is almost overwhelming. The sitters are not just looking at you, but seem at times to be cursing you. Their eyes, their faces, expressions, stance, all seem to embody some element of resentment, dissent, opposition and rejection of the viewer. That is of course contradictory since the images were made in a studio and with the collaboration with the subject. And yet there is a sense in some that the subject was coerced, remains reluctant. Perhaps it is simply confusion or fear of this instrument called the camera, but it produces mesmerizing portraits – your eye is trapped in the faces and expressions. Perhaps it is nothing more than the fact that we are looking back into time, a telescope into a world that we really do not know or understand, nor an aesthetic and culture we can relate to. Perhaps it is the perceived distance that time creates, adding an additional poignancy and power to images. Whatever it is, this is portraiture that is provocative and inspiring and I have loved studying and looking at each image.

The Transformation Of Pathology Into Pathos Or The Military Does What It Does And It Does It Well

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, Photography on October 23, 2010 at 3:00 pm

But the question remains: how, against the best efforts of so many, did a war once perceived as a nearly genocidal slaughter to perpetuate American neo-colonialism come to be viewed as an American tragedy? And to what extent have cultural and in particular literary representations of the war helped in that transformation? It could be argued that Vietnam War novels and memoirs have contributed significantly to this process, since they reach an important readership – the editors, publishers, writers, pundits, and professors who make up America’s intellectual class. By promoting a literature that favors individual lives over historical contingency, and textual sophistication over social analysis, this class has helped reproduce, not merely in the small audience of serious fiction writers but in the general public as well, a simple and ideologically unthreatening view of the war

Jim Nielson, Warring Fictions: Cultural Politics and The Vietnam War Narrative

From Ammiel Alcalay’s Scrapmetal

Today many novels and memoirs, and I will add, certain photojournalism projects continue this practice i.e. of transforming a near genocidal act of war into stories of individual suffering. I have already stated in an earlier post – Photographing The Unseen Or What Conventional Photojournalism Is Not Telling Us About Ourselves that:

[a]…set of photographers have focused on the ‘aftermath’ of those [American soldiers]  suffering from the violence of combat. Most all of these works act as quiet ‘memorials’ to the sacrifices of ‘our boys and girls’. These reveal the individual soldiers and their post-conflict trauma and take us into the world of those who are physically or emotionally maimed, or whose families are dealing with loss. As important as these works are, what concerns me is the sheer one-sidedness that has now emerged as a result of not a single American or European or other photographer producing similar works about the other victims of our conflicts…They, the ‘other’, are completely missing in this discussion. The one-sidedness is difficult to accept…What I fear is that these projects on post-war scars – as wonderful as so many of them are e.g. Nina Berman‘s work, or Ashly Gilbertson’s or Eugene Richard’s to name just a few, are helping the rest of us forget the real victims, and the real crimes committed in our name. They are distracting us from our willed and ‘democratically’ supported acts of warfare, terror, repression, torture, occupation, control, murder and devastation. They help repaint us a ‘good’ and ‘noble’, as involved in ‘defensive’ actions against ‘evil’, as simply honorable knights that have fallen defending the nation, in innocence and purity.  They claim to be ‘anti-war’ but they in fact do quite the opposite. They create a sense of ‘us’ being wronged, as victims and innocent and fuel our ‘righteous’ belief for the need to continue their wars. They invert the situation in front of us, allowing us to think that we are the ‘objects’ of violence, the focus of ‘evil’ while helping us forget that we are in fact the aggressor, the occupier, and the oppressor. They help us wear the garbs of ‘honor’ and ‘courage’ and ‘dignity’ while we carry out acts of dishonor, cowardice and inhumanity. Rather than provoke a larger discussion – one that has yet to take place, about how we have entangled ourselves in this mess, and how our democratic ideals and the foundations of our republic have been weakened, we are using such projects are in danger of helping us garland ourselves with righteousness and the self-pity of victims.

The construction of a narrative that turns our attention to our ‘boys and girls’ and their ‘struggle’ and ‘traumas’ in the field is precisely what the US military’s ‘embed’ program was designed to do; transform what is necessarily a violent, bloody and inhumane act of war into a cleansed, carefully managed, ‘precision-guided’, bloodless conflict. To that end, the US military exercised, and continues to exercise, any and all control necessary to help control the narrative of the conflict. A practice first instituted in the Falkland war, where only two correspondents were allowed access to the battlefield, we Americans have since perfected it. And our media has since willfully and gladly accepted it. Those who opposed the practice, those who attempted to go against the strictures of the US military paid a heavy price – were threatened, isolated and some other killed. One only has to look at the experience of Al-Jazeera reporters covering the war from ‘the wrong side’. The ‘unilaterals’ became targets for a military machine bent on controlling how the invasion of Iraq would be spoken about, and they continue to do so.

In his brilliant study of the media and the machinery of war The First Casualty: War Correspondent As Hero And Myth-Maker From The Crimea To Iraq, Phillip Knightley, points out that the first Gulf War:

…marked an important turning point in the history of war correspondents. Not only was it a war in which the military succeeded in changing people’s perceptions of what battle was really like, one in which the ‘surgical’ precision of new high-tech weapons meant few if any civilian casualties, but one in which the way in which the war was communicated was as important as the conduct of the war itself.

Indeed, this was a lesson put to full effect in the invasion of Iraq with the institution of the ‘embed’ program, Knightely revisits the intentions of this program, which I repeat here because it seems that many a veteran photojournalist and journalist seems to have forgotten:

It was [Bryan] Whitman (Deputy Assistant Secretary Of Defence) who came up with the idea of ‘embedding’ where correspondents would be placed with the military units in the field from where they could transmit ‘products’ or information compiled at the Pentagon, foreign capitals and ‘in theatre’, with the assistance of mobile press pools, combined information press centers (CIPCs) and sub-CIPCs. Public Affairs Officers (PAOs) from the Pentagon would scan all the media – print, electronic, domestic and international – all the while blending 24-hour news channels nightly news shows and news-magazine formats with entertainment companies. This would provide comprehensive coverage of the war while giving the impression that the news was coming directly from amidst the troops in the field: ‘the best representatives to convey American’s intentions and capabilities’ (Page 532)

The concept of ‘embeds’ was created to help control the narrative of the war. It remains the military’s most effective weapon of propaganda, and ensures that the US citizenry sees the war only from the perspective of the US soldier. In that, it expects the citizenry, much as it does of the reporters and photojournalists who embed with the soldiers, to find empathy and camaraderie with the fighting American soldier, and focus only the individual and ‘ground level’ realities as they are offered to them on-screen, print and internet. To this end, the war had to be, and has been, shown as bloodless, and certainly, horror-less. Any and all rules of this program are geared towards this end, and they are subject to change as the needs of the narrative change. There is, and there should not be, any misunderstanding about this.

So it is with some confusion that I view videos such as this one by reporter/photographer Michael Kamber – an otherwise fine writer and photographer, which has been getting a lot of air- and internet-play recently:

What confuses me is the thought behind the video and comments: Michael Kamber is surprised that a system meticulously designed to censor the likes of him, is…..censoring him.

Isn’t this precisely what this system is designed to do?

Why would anyone express surprise when a military program designed to control the narrative, and censor facets that can turn ‘public opinion’ against it, does what it is designed to do?

We have to remember that The New York Times was one of the newspapers at the forefront of the jingoism towards this illegal and unnecessary war. Their reporters – including the ‘fabulous’ Judith Miller, embedded with the Bush administration and regurgitating its lies to the broader American public. They were amongst the many mainstream journalism outlets that offered no protests were offered when the ‘embed’ program was first introduced. The paper that employs Michael Kamber has never felt it necessary to challenge the military’s ‘embed’ program and in fact understands very well what it can offer and produce. This paper’s particularly close collaboration with US administrations is quite well known, and in fact was inadvertently revealed some months earlier. To say nothing really about the fact that for the last seven years a number of ‘embedded’ reporters and photographers have gone on to win major journalism and photojournalism awards, thereby sanctioning what is basically a military propaganda program as a news reporting method.

While those who dared to work outside the program – the ‘unilaterals’ in the Gulf War, or Al-Jazeera correspondents working the ‘other’ side, were harassed, fired upon and in many instances killed. We remember the attacks on the Al-Jazeera headquarters in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The necessity of ‘embedding’ was created by the promise of violence and threat if one did not. Today all reporters reporting our wars have learned this lesson well. In fact, being embedded has become the only way to report on any way, anywhere in the world, as militaries across the globe has seen the success with which the US military fended off criticism and critical examination of its war effort.

Michael Kamber is a talented reporter and a talented photographer. So my confusion stems from his rather short-sighted criticism of the military doing what it always said it would do. Their latest embed rules – see USF-I NEWS MEDIA GROUND RULES Jan 2010, have been in effect since January of 2010 and if you are signing these documents before you proceed, why complain about them later? More egregiously, if you are signing up to participate in a propaganda program, why pretend that you are working with the ethics and rules of a ‘free press’?

I respect photographers like Ashley Gilbertson and Chris Hondros who never allow you to believe that their sold their intelligence and eye to the program. Their work, despite the restrictions, suggests a resistance to the efforts of the propaganda machine. How well they succeed is hard to tell, but from their images and words you can see that they are trying.

Michael Kamber also points out the importance of creating a ‘full document’ of the war. But wouldn’t such a document, should it ever be produce, require the rigorous and honest documentation of the experiences of the Iraqi’s who resisted and continue to resist the American presence? Can a ‘full document’ of the war even be created by simply ‘embedding’ with one of the protagonists of the conflict?

I would think not.

Wikileaks has just released a large tranch of Iraqr files. The Iraq War Logs make for eye-opening reading, and a corrective one.  The New Yor Times has a full discussion about them as well (You have to admire the paper’s rich resources to put all this together so quickly!) Reading them one is struck by the brutality of military occupation, and the inhumanity that is necessary to maintain it. We already know this from Gaza and the West Bank, but it is obvious that the war that is presented to us on our TV screens and morning newspapers, is not the same war that is being reported from on the ground.  As Al-Jazeera points out, they make for some disturbing reading:

The new material throws light on the day-to-day horrors of the war. The military calls them SIGACTs – significant action reports – ground-level summaries of the events that punctuated the conflict: raids, searches, roadside bombings, arrests, and more. All of them are classified “secret”.

The reports reveal how torture was rampant and how ordinary civilians bore the brunt of the conflict.

The files record horrifying tales: of pregnant women being shot dead at checkpoints, of priests kidnapped and murdered, of Iraqi prison guards using electric drills to force their prisoners to confess.

Equally disturbing is the response of the military to the civilian deaths caused by its troops. Excessive use of force was routinely not investigated and the guilty were rarely brought to book.

This then starts to move us towards a fuller document of the war, but certainly most all of these issues mentioned above are beyond the ‘eye’ of the ‘embed’. All this is what is taking place beyond the ‘embed’ or against it. There will be many who will condemn the ‘leaks’, but these same people will fail to make the connection between the fact that these documents are being leaked, and the carefully stage-managed war in the first place. It is the ‘embed’ program that necessitates the leaks, for even in the US military, there are many who are aghast at the immorality and brutality of war and refuse to be a part of it. The tight controls of ‘embedding’, and the guarantee that such placement of reporters will not reveal anything remotely related to the nature of this war, is what has compelled individuals to take their careers and lives in their hands and ‘leak’ material. It is a reflection of the effectiveness, and efficiency of the ‘embed’ program itself.

Its crucial to see the ‘embed’ posture for what it is, and work with it. You can’t work against it, at least not literarily. You can adopt a cynical/ironic posture within it, as some have done. Perhaps that is our last defense in this matter. But to try to suggest that somehow one is doing journalism while working exclusively with one side of a conflict is naive and misleading. An embedded reporter reports what s/he is allowed and told to report. There is some room for chance and good fortune, as in all human affairs, for the script to be violated and the embedded journalist to see something the military did not want him/her to see. But these are exceptions to the rule, and rare, and getting rarer still.

In the end we made our choices. Even now there is no debate amongst American journalism about the validity of this program or the need to challenge it on the legal front. It has become the way of doing ‘journalism’. There is a larger issue here about the rules and operational posture of American reporters reporting on America’s wars. It’s an issue that has largely been ignored – not the least by so many awards being handed out to the ‘embedded’, and which I feel there is an urgent need to address. I believe, in my own infinite naivety, that we can still turn things around. That American media still has the wherewithall to change this situation, to start to take the control back from the military. Or at least show resistance to the program. Perhaps this is what Michael Kamber is trying to do – to finally start to speak back to the military. I hope so.

During the first Gulf War a group of journalists and smaller media organizations attempted to protest the US military’s ‘pool’ program. They decided to file a legal case against the Pentagon alleging that the pool program was a violation of the First Amendment Right to freedom of expression. No major media organization – print, broadcast of other, joined the action. The war was over by the time the courts could rule on the issue.

Soon thereafter, at a National Press Club forum on March 19th, 1991, Barry Zorthian, chief Pentagon public affairs spokesperson during the Vietnam war, gloated:

The Gulf War is over and the press lost.

Indeed. We are still losing.

UPDATE: Embedded New York Times photojournalist Joao Silva was severly wounded this morning while on patrol with American forces in Afghanistan. See Times Photographer Wounded In Afghanistan. It may produced limited journalism, but it remains dangerous and requires considerable personal risk to accompany any military unit to any front line. Nothing can change that fact. I don’t know Joao personally, but know his work and wish him well and a full recovery. As far as I can tell there are no details about his injuries or condition. Will keep an eye out for that.