ExperimentalExperience

Archive for July, 2009|Monthly archive page

Wrapping Photographers Into The Packaging of War

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Essays Related To Pakistan, Journalism, Our Wars, Photography, The Daily Discussion on July 20, 2009 at 12:17 pm

They took the New York Times on a war tour. The Battle For Pakistan it was called when the magazine finally published the photographs their boys had so carefully constructed and bought back. They had all the elements that would suggest valor, fear, desperate battles, the struggle of ‘a state’ against an unseen but clearly fearsome enemy. Though to my eye it appeared to be a lot of pictures of Pakistani soldiers ‘posing’ – the kinds of pictures I know these soldiers often pose for whenever I have had to photograph them. They know the routine – it is a veritable war zone cat walk, Pakistan’s Next Top Soldier! There are ‘buckets’ of IEDs, emptied villages, men behind bars wearing their self incriminating, evidence acceptable in our modern courts of war, skull caps and beards. The Battle For Pakistan, a nation of 170 million, with a cultural and ethnic diversity that baffles most, was apparently being fought against a few hundred men with outdated guns and plastic buckets IEDs!

They also took CNN on one, all expenses paid, luxury jaunt around the Swat ‘war zone’. Their reporter, breathless and in awe of his actually being inside this valley. Pakistan military confronts Taliban in key Swat city is a breathless regurgitation of the voice of the Army, the reporter not even attempting to ask any hard questions. Dressed in the requisite ‘toy soldier’ garb of multi-pocket pants and manly watch, it appears that he is attempting more to celebrate his presence in a ‘hard’ zone than actually doing any reporting. The soldiers languish in the background, looking bored and at ease. Some questioned are raised – but none that would break the ‘spell’ of this great war. Kills are celebrated by some army spokesperson who i am sure off camera is caring father, husband, lover or son.Everything that the dead lying around the valley of Swat are not. A collection of random weapons – most look like they were from the early 20th century are laid out on tables, and some men – less than 5 are paraded in front of the journalists. Who are these men? What is their story? What are their crimes? What are their rights? We do not ask – they are ‘Taliban’ says someone and that is enough. The war looks like it is going well.

What should have been no more than a police action 2 years ago, is now being sold as Pakistan’s great war to protect America! A see-how-we-love you performance piece funded by American dollars and fueled by Pakistani greed.

What has happened in Swat remains largely unknown. The media has been blocked from entering. Refugees streaming out of the region – expelled in fact because they were ordered to leave or feared random slaughter from the Army, speak about there being no war in the valley, and the killing of innocents who are then paraded as ‘Taliban’ fighters.

We will also not know what has happened in Swat because few if any of the foreign journalists working on covering the region have any idea or interest in the social, economic, and political history of the area. These people have no stories. Pakistan is largely covered by journalists who are ill equipped to report on it. They do not speak any of its languages, they have little or no knowledge of its history, they do not understand its ethnic groups, their histories, or even the fundamental political history of the nation since its creation, and definitely not prior to its separation from India. They know little or nothing, other than what they need to know looking down through the telescope of the ‘war against terror’.

Slugging around a few cliches’ mostly picked up in elite living rooms in Islamabad, they venture out in righteous conviction that this is a war against the ‘Taliban’ – a word that today incorporates pretty much any entity we wish to place inside it and hence has no meaning at all! And yet, we are at war against this abstraction, quite like our war against ‘terror’ and that other one against ‘drugs’. In theaters soon – the war against ‘angst’!

The people of Swat, much like the people of Waziristan, or Mohmand, or Bajaur, or Mardan or any other ‘conflict’have no history, no political-economy, no agency, no connections to the wider nation, no memory, no emotions, no love or longings, and no human capacity for creating culture, life, society and values. They are just dead bodies, ‘Taliban’, refugees, that scuttle around as we need them.

I suppose some of them are being ‘professional’ i.e. ‘do your job and shut up!’. It means never asking the editors any questions, returning to challenge assumptions, attempting to offer insights based on their experience, working to alter the ‘angles’ being created in towers in Manhattan. You give them the pictures they want, and the best of them are extremely good at it.

I have to believe however that these photographers are smarter than their works suggest. They have to be. I have to believe that they are just subsuming their intelligence to deliver to the demands of what today are clearly even more exalted jobs; paid positions or contract positions with major magazines whose budgets can only hold a few.

I am reminded of something that Paolo Pellegrin admitted to after his coverage of the evacuation of the settlers from Gaza. His statement revealed a large gap between the theatricality and emotions that were created in the images – a necessity to support the master narrative of that ‘pull out’. That is, the wrenching decision that Israel had to make and the incredible concessions she was prepared to offer, and the suffering she was prepared to inflict on her own citizens, for the sake of ‘peace’ with the Palestinians. The photographs repeatedly show determined, pious, righteous, resisting settlers as Israeli police ‘fight’ to evict them from their homes. The world watch with a mixture of pity and awe and the photographers delivered the images that captured these scenes. Many went on to win major photo awards that also showed the ‘innocent’ settlers even single handedly resisting the determination of the Israeli forces. A heroic strugle, a heroic people, a grand national sacrifice, a nation torn, a people wounded, families destroyed, lives interuppted, all for peace.

And yet, while narrating his work, Paolo offered this incredible insight on his Magnum In Motion piece about the Gaza evacuations called The Evacuation – you can hear his words by clicking on Image #18 that shows Israeli police dragging a settler onto a waiting bus:

This obviously actually happened, and these [the images] are documents of real moments. But you felt that it was also a theater. The event was at some level orchestrated and in some cases the arrangement that was made was that the settlers in a particular community or settlement decided that they could not walk away from the settlement on their own feet because that was not the way that they wanted to leave. So they decided [that] they were going to be dragged away. That it was a decision. And that was an element in this story, the fact that obviously this was happening, but at the same time it was also the result of two parts (parties?) coming together and each with their own agenda.

There is a gap, between the intelligence and awareness of the photographer, and the photographs he returns with to fulfil the story he has been asked to deliver. Even the Magnum In Motion piece maintains the emotional and pathos atmosphere of the piece, at no time allowing any suggestion that this entire event or certainly major portions of it was also political theater. The piece ends with the heroic and lament ridden music of the Israeli national anthem the Hatikva - a shockingly poor choice given that the settlers were being pulled out from occupied territories! The designers of the piece remain true to the story that is being packaged, the emotions that are being sold, the angle that is accepted, agreed to and acceptable to the world. And certainly not be coincidence, the angle that the Israeli government, its think tanks, lobbyists and pundits defined for us.

Photojournalism and photography too easily depoliticizes what it documents, elevating the visible act that is otherwise mired in various forces outside of the photograph, to being seen as ‘complete’ and ‘true’ in and of itself.

The photographer’s mind and body can sense that he is part of something more than just ‘real’ events, that he has become part of a performance, and within that performance, complete with its pathos and sorrow, he has to continue to work and shoot the ‘right’ angles, the right emotions, the right ‘feel’ so as to not ruin the whole thing for the rest of the audience – the editors, the readers in the papers the following morning. Besides Paolo, who obviously realized that he was playing a part in a script that someone else had written for him, there were hundreds of other photographers. The same hundreds by the way that are repeatedly prevented from access to Gaza, or Jenin or any number of other sites in the occupied territories.

When They take us somewhere, we should ask ourselves why!

Which is precisely what the embedded journalists now touring the ‘war’ zone with the Pakistani army ought to be doing. Why are they being taken? Where are they being taken? Why now and not before or after? A modicum of skepticism would be useful even when producing what are clearly ‘filler’ mutli-media pieces to feed the ravenous hunger of the 24-7, multi-channel needs of our the business of modern news.

Kamran Asdar Ali,  acting director of the South Asia Institute and associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas-Austin, has written a valuable piece called Pakistan’s Troubled “Paradise on Earth” in the Middle East Research & Information Project (MERIP). He points out again that:

The Taliban have plainly appealed to smoldering anti-feudal resentments in the Swat valley in recruiting their cadre. A handful of families own the fruit orchards and cow pastures that are the main sources of livelihood in the valley, and their agreements with tenant farmers are often honored in the breach. Wages for rural labor are low. The large landlords (khans) are also likely to hold the concessions for the timber forests and the contracts to operate the gemstone mines that also employ the working class of Swat. “Paradise on earth” or not, the Swat valley has seen a large percentage of its able-bodied men out-migrate since the 1950s.

Until 1969, Swat was run as a princely state under an autocratic wali, in a continuation of the administrative structure set up under the British. Though he is remembered as benevolent and forward-looking in his social policies, the wali held a complete monopoly over taxation and the exploitation of natural and mineral resources. Revenue collection rights were given to elites and every household was taxed at a high rate to fill the state’s coffers. The princely state had its own laws and also the privilege of raising an army; indeed, the wali had a personal guard, a cavalry unit and heavy artillery. The Taliban’s desire for autonomy has a precedent.

When I met with Maulana Fazalullah in early 2008 he was considered a ‘dangerous’ man. While the army patrolled the highways and mountain tops attempting to control the so-called Taliban, I was able to walk in to Maulana Fazalullah’s compound at the Imam Dehri center and sit down with him for tea. We spent a couple of hours during which he insistently talked about the corruption and brutalization of the people of the valley of Swat. The men sitting around him echoed his stories with those of their own; the corruption and venality of the police, the exploitation of their forests and water ways, the destruction of their way of life and values at the hands of property speculators and hotel owners, the continued struggle to find a decent life under the boots of the feudasl who decided everything on a whim. Fazalullah never spoke about the Americans, Afghanistan, the ‘war against terror’ or such. He just spoke about Swat, about the areas near and around his village. As we sat there nearly 400 volunteers from villages all over the valley had come down to help construct his new madrassa. They had bought their own food and supplies and were working 24 hours a day to construct the center. And money as well. The army sat on the mountaintops and watched. I am sure they could see that dozens of armed men milling about the compound as well. But it was the highways that they wanted to patrol, the local people they wanted to harass, and the foreign photographers they wanted to take to their ‘posts’ and ‘command centers’.

It does not take a lot of intelligence to see that you are part of a game whose rules are being defined beyond the headlines and journalist pieces.

Ali Eteraz wrote a fascinating piece about the Islamization of Pakistan’s constitution under the direction of Zulfiwar Ali Bhutto. He describes in a piece called Pakistan Is Already An Islamic State, that foreign media’s penchant to see everything in Pakistan exclusively through the distorting prism of ‘the war against terror’:

…these views, rooted in the “war on terror” frame of thinking, diagnose Pakistan’s relationship with Islam incorrectly. The real issue in Pakistan is not that from time to time a group of militants, while demanding the implementation of sharia, begins attacking civilians. This, while deplorable and painful, is a consequence of Pakistan’s constitution. The essential problem in Pakistan is its flawed constitutional framework, which forces every citizen to refer to their idiosyncratic and personal views on life through the lens of “Islam.” Such a state of affairs has the effect of concealing every political, material and economic demand behind theological verbiage, and that situation ultimately favors religious hard-liners and militants who are willing to use violence.

Further pointing out that:

Most people in the world, including some Pakistanis, live under the illusion that the country is secular and just happens to have been overrun by extremists. This is false. Pakistan became an Islamic state in 1973 when the new constitution made Islam the state religion. Under the earlier 1956 constitution Islam had been merely the “official” religion. Nineteen-seventy-three, in other words, represents Pakistan’s “Iran moment“—when the government made itself beholden to religious law. Most western observers missed the radical change because the leader of Pakistan at the time was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a whiskey-drinking, pseudo-socialist from a Westernized family. Those that did notice the transformation ignored it because the country was reeling from a massive military defeat in 1971, which led to half the nation becoming Bangladesh.

And that this had devastating consequences for how the people of the country had to use Islamic idioms to demand even the most essential and basics of needs from a government now drowning under the Islamization programs of the self-styled prophet General Zia-Ul-Haq. Even Nawaz Sharif, now desperately attempting to pull on democratic underpants, once attempted to draw up legislation that would have him titled Amir-Ul-Momineen – The Great Leader Of The Believers. Pakistanis do have a wonderful penchant for shallow grandiosity and empty bombast!

And finally, Tariq Ali has recently written a Diary for London Review of Books piece that reminds us of the venality and corruption that is Asif Ali Zardari, and the pathetic state of a nation that is increasingly convinced that in fact it was he who simply murdered his wife, the highly popular, democratic myth known as Benazir Bhutto!

Of course these nuances, particularly those raised by Ali Eteraz and Asdar Ali are difficult to catch in our morning internet read. Pakistan does not really exist, other than as a pawn in a chess game being played in Washington D.C. The people dying on the frontiers of Afghanistan are not real people. President Obama was shedding tears for the killed Iranian activist Neda the same day that his drones slaughtered 60 people in the tribal areas. The cynical exploitation of ‘human concern’ in one instant, and the callous, calculated, inhuman, purely barbaric and cannibalistic indifference to the erasure of another speaks poorly of the popular belief that modernity and morality go hand in hand. The Pakistani government (it should be called the Pakistani Cabal), now in the hands of a rank criminal, is a pawn that can only move in two or three preordained directions. And our reporters arrive in it and report on it with those ‘rules of engagement’ subliminally and explicitly defined.

Let the wars begin!

Photographing Poverty: A Dialogue

In Background Materials on July 19, 2009 at 6:40 pm

I came across this a few days ago and thought that it would prove a provocative read for all of us:

Child Labor: The Sequel

19th Century Public Art in 21st Century Photography

Photographing Poverty: Realism Or Sentimentality

Asim

You Must Remember This, A Kiss Is Still A Kiss, A Lie Is Still A Lie

In Journalism, Our Wars, The Daily Discussion on July 19, 2009 at 3:11 pm

Losing My Religion To Tomorrow’s Headlines

In Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, The Daily Discussion on July 18, 2009 at 1:15 am

Via Sepia Mutiny:

This is RizMC

Realities, Myths, Fantasies & Paranoias: The Muslims – Get To Know Them Series

In Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on July 17, 2009 at 3:17 pm

Professor Yoginder Sikand recently posted an extensive review of Abdelwahab El-Affendi’s Who Needs An Islamic State. The book is a fascinating challenge to political Islamists everywhere and confronts them on their simplistic, utopian and definitely mythical ideas about an earlier pure, ideal, perfect Islamic past. As Professor Sikand writes:

El-Affendi is particularly critical of modern Islamist ideologues, such as the Egyptian Syed Qutb and the Pakistani Abul Ala Maududi, who conceived of an ideal Islamic state as being totalitarian, anti-democratic, authoritarian and coercive. He is bitter about what he calls the Islamists’ ‘self-righteous pretensions’, which translates into ‘a readiness to resort to violence at the slightest pretext’. He likens them to the Khawarij or Kharijites, an early splinter group from among the Muslims, who saw themselves alone as true Muslims, and the rest of the world, including other Muslims, as deviant, aberrant, even anti-Islamic, thus ruling out any room for compromise.

While still upholding the notion of a Muslim state molded or guided by religio-moral concerns and principles, el-Affendi points to the serious gaps in modern Islamist political thought, indicating the way forward for the emergence of a genuinely democratic, pluralist and contextually-relevant Muslim political discourse.


I also found Salman Hameed’s blog Irtiqa. As he describes it, it:

…tracks and comments on news relevant to the interplay of science & religion – including scientific debates taking place in the Muslim world. Irtiqa literally means evolution in Urdu. But it does not imply only biological evolution. Instead, it is an all encompassing word used for evolution of the universe, biological evolution, and also for biological/human development. While it has created confusion in debates over biological evolution in South Asia, it provides a nice integrative name for a blog that addresses issues of science & religion.

Salmam Hameed is an Assistant Professor of Integrated Science & Humanities at Hampshire College, Massachusetts and working “…on understanding the rise of creationism in contemporary Islamic world and how Muslims view the relationship between science & religion.”.

Check it out – There was an amusing discussion about a mythical Halal Browser – a poke at the recently announced Koogle a Kosher browser – no, I kid you not! The Halal browser drew some comments from Karachi blogger Tazeen Javed about its seductive features for the obscurantists.

I also found, thanks to Salman Hameed something that I had been looking for for months – a survey of educational institutions in Pakistan and in particular the spread of madrassas as far as the country’s education structure goes. Here is a fascinating piece by Asim Khwaja called The Madrassa Myth that examines how pervasive a presence these religious institutions have in the country. The conclusion: not much! Though as one commentator points out, unregistered madrassas may not be in the data. Worth a read.

And then from my own bookshelves I found, while dusting them of course, copies of Fazlur Rahman’s Islam and Islam & Modernity.  Fazlur Rahman studied Arabic at Punjab University,  went to Oxford University where he wrote a thesis on Ibn Sina. He then taught at at Durham University and then at McGill University where he taught Islamic studies until 1961. A noted Islamic scholar, he was also the Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor of Islamic Thought at the University of Chicago. And perhaps most obviously, he was reviled and hounded out of Pakistan where he had been invited to head the Central Institute of Islamic Research. As explained by Hangingodes:

Anyone examining the newspapers of second half of 68′ would know with ease that the whole episode was one of the earliest and most unfortunate sagas of political hijacking of Islam. It is immaterial whether Fazlur Rahman was labeled a kaafir, an apostate or a religious hypocrite and how the political environment at that time overshadowed an otherwise academic issue; what is important however, that Fazlur Rahman proved to be a victim of misdirected traditionalist emotionalism and paid the heavy price of abandoning his cherished goal of transforming intellectual heritage of Muslims and deploying a modern religious education policy in Pakistan.

A brilliant man, a superb scholar, his works are the earliest influence on my own ideas about the study of religions and in particular the rigorous and modern examination and investigation of the religion of Islam. I recommend both Islam and Islam & Modernity as places to start, the latter is in fact a fabulously enlightening work!

India Blogs That Inform, Amuse, Confuse And Enlighten

In Background Materials on July 17, 2009 at 10:40 am

If you are curious, here are some blog sites by and/or about Indian literature, politics, culture, history, arts etc. that I find fun and inspiring;

Not that you guys have any time to be blog-surfing!

:)

Asim

What I Learnt From My Students & How It Was Not What I Had Planned On Teaching Them!

In Background Materials on July 16, 2009 at 9:40 pm

Earlier this year I taught a 1-week photography workshop in Dubai. I am not fond that city, and deliberately avoid going there for as long as I can remember. It has something to do with an early childhood memory of seeing poor Pakistani laborers being beaten with sticks by security police at the Dubai International Airport. I have since associated feelings of anger and sorrow with that town. But the workshop was being organized by a good friend and I could not say no.

The workshop was meant to be for new photographers – proficient with the technical wizardry of their cameras, but only starting to learn how to create documentary work. On the first day of the workshop I found myself standing in front of 11 students from various backgrounds, and staring at some of the most sophisticated and expensive camera equipment one can buy.

Some of the students were writers and editors from local newspapers and magazines. Others were starting out in photography and hoping to pursue careers as freelance commercial and feature photographers. There were a couple of amateurs who were there just to learn a little more. And a teacher of photographer from Kuwait who wanted to get away from that country and just be amongst others like him i.e. lovers of the craft of picture making.

The workshop outline was quite simple, and I am sharing it here with you because we will talk about some of the issues listed here during out time in Ajmer:

  • Dominating Your Camera: S&M (Simple & Manual) Techniques For Controlling the Picture Making Process
    • Understanding light temperature and its impact on the picture
    • Watching light movement and mapping light
    • Measuring light and shooting only when it is right
    • Awareness of geometry and constructing images backwards
    • Out dated techniques for fast focus and proper exposure that can save you millions
  • Lost In Space: Story Frameworks And Other Crutches For The Crippled
    • Introducing the story
    • Key story line requirements
    • Developing a checklist
    • What are the themes that will define the story
    • The theory of comic book photo essays and how to graduate to book.
  • The Necessary Evil: Dealing with the Subject, Gaining Access and Developing Trust
    • List of subjects
    • Who is the subject or what
    • How do you convince them to let you shoot them
    • Arranging access to locations and individuals
    • Entering, working within and exiting situations/locations

The first day of the workshop went of fine. By the second day we had identified a series of stories the students wanted to shoot, each story contributing to an overarching theme around the issue of the economic crisis and its consequences (both good and bad) for the city. A fairly straight forward and obvious assignment with rich possibilities in this city.

But on the 3rd day things started to go awry.

I noticed that some of the students were avoiding stories that involved negotiating access and working with people! In fact, the act of packing your cameras, heading to a location, and working to negotiate entry and the right to photograph people and their lives proved to be the one thing the students struggled with most!

I had assumed that once the stories were selected, the outlines and frameworks defined, the subjects identified, it would be a relatively easy matter to simply head out, contact the right person, introduce yourself and begin loitering around their lives to find the right pictures. It proved to be the hardest thing to do.

Three students dropped out of the class rather than face their subjects as I kept insisting they had to. Four never actually overcame the process and continued to shoot from the side lines and tangentially. Only four – and its no coincidence that these were the writers and editors, actually managed to get inside the lives of their stories and come back with some surprisingly personal and human pictures.

4 out of 11!

It is one of the hardest things to do in the first few days at the start of any documentary and photographer project – to break through that invisible but concrete wall that first separates you from the stranger you are about to work with. And it can take creativity, compassion, determination and perseverance to scale it and it will test your self confidence and your conviction.

There will be moments at the start of a story, a project, when it will all appear hopeless, when  you will think that there are no images and that there is no story and that the subject will never give, accept or allow you to come close and be part of their lives for even a moment. It will all appear distant, confusing, chaotic and even self destructive as your mind works against itself and its better instincts and tells you to flee! You will feel tired, scared and lost.

The fact is that there is nothing you can do other than to keep going back, to stay longer, to resist the temptation to leave and remain, to put aside the camera and be human.

I did not expect that the last few days of the workshop would be spent encouraging the students to simply hang around, to simply wait and not rush to find the images or the story they had gone there to find. That to find deeper reserves of patience during those first 48-72 hours can be the difference between mediocrity and clarity. And that all photographers, good or bad, unknown or famous, go through this. The best work through it consistently though not necessarily with greater confidence.

We are discussing and thinking a lot about our stories and the readings and the crucial intellectual issues that inform them. But come August 10th you will be asked to start to think as a human being walking in to the lives of other human beings who are from a different class, ethnicity, culture, society, religion and come with vastly different life experiences, outlook and concerns. Suddenly all that we have read and thought about will fall to the wayside and we will be confronted with our own fears, insecurities, uncertainties and doubts.

Suddenly we will sense our frailties and our human doubts. And it will all happen in front of people who will be taking you as a serious professional and expecting you to know exactly what it is that you are looking for and need.

We need to be prepared to be tested. And to realize that it is not just a matter of scaling the wall, but of doing so such that the other welcomes you across. This is in the end a documentarian’s greatest asset; the ability to overcome the divide and get to a place where the subject offers you their hospitality, reveals to you their intimate concerns, shares with you their joys and troubles and believes that you are there to speak about and for them with integrity, honesty and humanity.

Scaling this wall is about going from being a stranger to becoming a trusted partner. And it will take perseverance and belief. That is why we have focused so much on selecting the stories and hopefully each of you has selected one your believe in and are seriously engaged with.

Those of you with more experience should be ready to help and support the others. I and Sara will of course be there, though I can confirm that I face these moments of severe doubt practically every time I go out to shoot. So you will not be alone – I will be cowering in the corners with you! :)

The stuff in the workshop outline above is the easy part. We will get through that without concern. And we have a fabulous 2-weeks to work through the rest. As Sara has repeatedly pointed out – this will be a unique experience and I am still impressed that the school is encouraging this level of on-the-ground work from its students. Some, not all, will jump over that wall without a thought. Others will take some more time. Regardless, it will be seen and felt by all, I promise you that. The question we will have to ask ourselves is how do we negotiate it so that it reveals what is on the other side and not damage it.

Asim

Panic Not! Ira Glass To The Rescue

In Uncategorized on July 13, 2009 at 9:31 am

After reading some of the recent posts focusing on the divergent and/or contradictory demands of academic and photographic project objectives, I thought that it would be useful for you all to step back and reconsider things.

Ira Glass. This American Life. A brilliant story teller. An amazing journalist. An inspiration to many. My friend Zoriah reminded me that perhaps the students should hear him talk about creative story telling and how the best of them actually work. He himself has written a post about Ira Glass on his blog.

So I am posting a bunch of his videos for you here so that you are inspired and excited and liberated!

And another where he talks about finding stories

And then of course the discussion wanders over to why failure is inevitable but holds us together is our aesthetic values (this is my favorite video in the sequence.)

And finally, the 2 major mistakes beginners make; to abandon your life and to abandon yourself in your work!

Ajmer is an incredible and rare opportunity to explore and unleash a creative side to you that liberates you from the strict, often well defined requirements of academic work. That is, you have to appreciate that the stories inAjmer allow you to tickle that human, creative, and imaginative side of you that you may typically hold back in your academic writings. That is, be quirky, be unconventional, be daring and be simply inspired. Not to say that all that can’t be applied to academic research and writings, but I think you all understand what I mean.

This is about story telling. It is about creating something that excites, informs and inspires. It is actually more difficult than a written paper because you do not have the luxury of endless references, tangential discussions on background, footnotes and such. It is just a pure, simple, straight forward story.

And it is a fabulous complement to what you are typically used to delivering; the photography reveals the human consequences and responses to the broader, underlying, academic issues you are exploring. Think of it as the hook that compels someone to read your more detailed research. For example, if we are examining Special Economic Zones (SEZ) than the research speak to their origins, goals and reasoning for creation, and also to the resistance of the local communities and why. The photo project then can reveal the human side of this story through one individual and concentrate on their agency, their response and their views. So the two work together!

We are 3 weeks away from entering a new world of people we typically do not meet and definitely do not know. This can be scary, but it is also one of the most exciting things you will do in your life. I promise you that.

Do not approach the photography like an assignment because you will struggle, panic and worse, fail at it. Approach photography as a human being first, who is meeting and trying to understand the lives, experiences and perspectives of other human beings. Hear their stories, and most importantly, hear your own responses to their stories. And it is in these personal responses that you photos and your narrative will begin to offer itself.

I quote Huxley: Experience is not what happens to you, it is what you do with what happens to you.

And what you do with your experiences with these amazing people you will meet will be based on you as an individual, a human being and then as a photographer using photographs and text to express it.

Where The Head Spun: Sunday, 12th July 2009

In Israel/Palestine, The Daily Discussion on July 12, 2009 at 10:39 am

This week has been busy with some writings on The Idea of India photo project, but I did manage to come across some fascinating stuff:

Ikea Is As Bad A Wal-Mart; A piece in Salon magazine that reviews Ellen Ruppel Shell’s book Cheap.

Yes, it is our consumer habits that are driving these climate changes – the degradation of the soil, the cutting of forests, the polluting of the oceans, the exploitation of human labor in china and mexico, to name just two places, is all for the sake of our cheap consumer goods.  We may prefer to avoid this fact by trying to simply shop ‘green’, but shopping, and repeateded, frequent cycles of shopping are in fact why the problems are emerging.

Shell’s argument is simple; buy cheap and you have to buy often and hence continue to fuel the hunger of the machinery that in the end churns away at human lives (cheap labor) and the earth (trees, oil, water, cultivatable land, fresh water etc.). So avoid IKEA!

Dr. R.K.Pachauri has a blog! I did not realize this. Dr. Pachauri is the Director General of The Energy & Resource Institute (TERI) and Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and winner of a Nobel Prize for his team’s work on the environment.  Some interesting quotes:

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) brought out a report in 2006 which estimates emissions of GHGs from agriculture as a whole, of which 80 percent are accounted for by livestock production. These constitute 18 percent of all GHG emissions from human activities. An interesting comparison between a vegetarian meal and a beef steak, for instance, was provided by The New York Times in its issue of 27 January 2008 which is revealing. A meal consisting of 1 cup of broccoli, 1 cup of eggplant, 4 ounces cauliflower and 8 ounces of rice results in 0.4 pounds of emissions of CO2 equivalent. On the other hand a 6 ounce beef steak results in 10 pounds of CO2 equivalent emissions, which amount to 25 times that of the vegetarian meal with which the comparison was made.

Apparently the retarded Mayor of London was miffed and said that he would now eat twice the beef he normally did! I guess he has friends in the beef industry!

Arundhati Roy seems to have lost her faith in the direction of modern ‘democracy’ particularly because, as she argues in her piece Democracy’s Failing Light, it has become a brand usurped by the most venal and calculated of opportunists, and used to veil injustices and terrible violence. Interestingly Pankaj Mishra had expressed similar dismay in an earlier piece called The Banality of Democracy where he argued that ‘democracy’ has become a theater that hides extremes of violence, and where the language of ‘elections’, ‘votes’, ‘citizen rights’, ‘liberty’ etc. is used to silence genuine freedom and justice.

Today’s While You Wait Lobotomy Special! come from  this interview with director Claude Lanzmann, speaking about his new film called Tsahal.

I was laughing so hard that in fact I could not even post a link to this frankly retarded conversation when I first read it a week ago.  What adds spice to it is the subtlety of the interview who is clearly repulsed by Lanzmann’s racist and, lets be honest, stupid answers.

When asked a question (and it is clear that Lanzmann’s intellectual myopia does not allow him to recognize that the interviewer is setting him up), about why Israeli life is worth more than that of others, he says:

The answer goes back to the Shoah, the murder of the Jews in the Second World War. There are very few families in Israel who did not lose one or several members in the Shoah. The number of Jewish victims killed in wars and attacks must at all costs – and I mean that absolutely literally– be kept as low as possible. That is the maxim.

And the inanities continue, when further into the interview, and now clearly loosing hold on his sanity, Lanzmann reveals a toy soldier’s love of weapons of slaughter:

Weapons play a central role in my film. But I don’t know whether I would say they “fascinate” me. That’s not a fair word. Because the film is never about fascination. And yet I can certainly say that tanks are the most extraordinary machines. And the most extraordinary tank of all is the Israeli Merkava, because it was built in absolutely impossible conditions. The tank commanders love their Merkavas. The tank units spend at least three years of their lives in them. The Merkava was developed by the Israeli General Tal. He features prominently in my film. He says that Israel is an ideal country in which to develop tanks further and wage wars with them.

All this would just be interesting amusement, like reading the diary of a ‘slow’ friend at school, if it were not for the fact that the interview is packed solid with false histories carried over from the 1950s! Mythological references to the ‘Jews sense of defensiveness’ are trotted out to argue and defend Israel’s current aggressions and love of violence. As if there isn’t a people, nation, class or ethnicity who couldn’t construct a narrative of past sufferings and argue for their need to perpetuate new ones! The Israeli canard of the ‘uniqueness’ of the Jew’s suffering is bandied about with abandon, and I guess leaving many an Armenian, Bangladeshi, Mapuche and yes Palestinian salivating at their ‘right’ to then perpetuate their own mass slaughters in the future!

Reductive ideas of about Arabs and Palestinians are displayed to create another old canard; Israel is perpetuatlly under threat and so it must kill – they make us kill them! Viva Meir!

Its is amusing and funny, and I wish the interviewer was even more acerbic and explicit in his disdain which he clearly has but holds in check.

And finally, the great toy soldier moment does arrive, this strange boy’s love for the butcher’s tools. The interviewer subtly tricks Lanzmann into revealing an infantile worship of weapons, like a boy who buys a sports car to compensate for his cowardice and overwhelming sense of inadequecy. I qoute Lanzmann’s hilarious reply:

Of course I rode in a tank during the filming of “Tsahal”. I have also shotgrenades from a Merkava. It was really easy to hit a stationary target, but I found it extremely difficult to hit a moving one. I have also flown on reconnaissance missions. During the work on my film I also saw the first prototypes for unmanned flights, drones, which were invented and developed in Israel. They are very unusual machines, but they do not feature in my film.

Oh dear. He rode a tank – Yeeeee Haaaaa! Lets get me one of them A-rabs!!

Over at Dissent the writer/intellectual Ali Iteraz in a piece called Pakistan Is Already An Islamic State reminds us, particularly those from Pakistan, that the country’s slide towards becoming a religiously drunk state is  nothing new and does not begin just because of America’s recent wars in Afghanistan. He takes us back to the years of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – the man who is now a myth so sacrosanct that we forget that he began his career kissing up to Pakistan’s earliest dictators, precipitated 2 wars, and was directly responsible for the break-away of Bangladesh, not to say anything about the genocide that he helped encourage there. Some quotes:

Most people in the world, including some Pakistanis, live under the illusion that the country is secular and just happens to have been overrun by extremists. This is false. Pakistan became an Islamic state in 1973 when the new constitution made Islam the state religion. Under the earlier 1956 constitution Islam had been merely the “official” religion. Nineteen-seventy-three, in other words, represents Pakistan’s “Iran moment“—when the government made itself beholden to religious law. Most western observers missed the radical change because the leader of Pakistan at the time was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a whiskey-drinking, pseudo-socialist from a Westernized family. Those that did notice the transformation ignored it because the country was reeling from a massive military defeat in 1971, which led to half the nation becoming Bangladesh.

And as the government and its working increasingly articulated their objectives and plans through a language religious, the people too learned that couching their demands in religious terms was perhaps the only way to find action from the government. As Iteraz says:

Over the 1970s and 1980s, Pakistan’s marginalized people also learned how to put Islam to political use.

In 1994, the poor locals of the quasi-autonomous Swat region, languishing in a broken colonial-era legal scheme, agitated for a more efficient system called “Sharia Nizam e Adl.” This system, being local and cultural in origin and mostly the construction of a man named Sufi Mohammad, had very little in common with the sharia that exists in the classical books of Islamic Law. But the Swatis figured that appealing to Islam would work, because, after all, everyone else did the same when they wanted their material concerns addressed. They turned out to be right. Benazir Bhutto’s government quickly consented.

His conclusion is, and it relates to the situation in Swat and other regions, that people are arguing through the prism of Islam because for decades that has been the only means to reach decision makers, and to effect any sort of legislative and political action on matters of justice, rights, and needs. I quote Iteraz again:

What is happening with the widespread religious militancy in Pakistan today is that the political and feudal elite like Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who initially were beneficiaries of manipulating the Islamic character of Pakistan, have lost control of “Islam” to a much broader class of people. These out-of-power groups, after decades of alienation, want to have control in the political system and are attempting to acquire it by defining Islam, which is an amorphous idea, in a way they deem most suitable. Every day the abstract cry of sharia becomes a means of political agitation. Every day people organize into new movements around the declaration.

I recommend the entire piece, particularly to those who insist on solving abstractions with yet another delusional one that goes something like ‘If we implement true Islam we will solve all this’ or ‘Islam does not advocate violence’ and other such inanities. These are political and social issues – of man, for man and by man. Man uses whatever references, languages and forms he needs to argue for his food, his shelter and his security. It can be ‘democracy’, it can be ‘Islam’, it can be any number of abstract slogans, but underneath they are fueled by fundamental needs.

The Shock Of Gaza Or Salvaging Something From What Was Nearly Nothing

In Background Materials on July 11, 2009 at 6:24 pm

A few days after arriving in Gaza last January, I posted the following piece on the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting’s Untold Stories blog site dedicated to the Gaza project that writer Elliott Woods and I were working on. I think it fairly captures what was going on in my head during that time.

On the Getty Images archive you can type in ‘Gaza Destroyed’ and retrieve over 5,500 images to select from.  If you run the query ‘Gaza Funerals’ you will get back over 7,000 images.  I was unable to check the Corbis archives because at the time of writing this entry their site was undergoing maintenance.  But I am confident that I would find a similarly large number of images for both the queries above.

The challenge for a photographer arriving in Gaza is that s/he is walking into a place that has been consistently and extensively photographed for decades, and that there are many fine, talented and professional Palestinian photographers who carry out this task for their various agencies.  In addition, some of the best and most talented international photojournalists have also made Gaza the focus of their work.

I have arrived in Gaza in the aftermath of Israel’s most recent military operation against the region, Operation Cast Lead.  And I find that though the scale of this latest venture is larger than anything I can remember from my previous travels to Gaza, its impact and consequences are very familiar.

The official numbers state that over 1,300 people have been killed, of which it is believed that nearly 400 were children, about 50,000 made homeless, and over 5000 left seriously injured.

I arrived in Gaza just as the cease fire had been declared and I had been immediately struck by how familiar it all seemed.

The day before as I stood on the Egyptian border with Rafah and watched Israeli jets dropping their payload on buildings and tunnel construction sites I was unsure of my decision to proceed.  Cowardice has been my best friend and protected me from many dangers.

Why would I not listen to it now?

My first trip to Gaza was in 2003.  I then returned and continued to document the situation here, particularly in Rafah, Gaza, in 2004 and 2005.  The settlers were still in Gaza then, and so were activists from the International Solidarity Movement, and the armored bulldozers and their accompanying tanks that were constructing the massive steel wall along Rafah’s border with Egypt.

Home demolitions were frequent along the Rafah border as bulldozers tore down Palestinian homes to make way for this steel wall.  Tank patrols would terrorize residents living along the border, and there would be frequent firing into these neighborhoods resulting in deaths and maiming of residents.

As a photographer I documented my fair share of funerals, Hamas marches and families salvaging their belongings from the ruins of their destroyed houses.

And now, as I walk through the devastation in Gaza from the most recent Israeli operation, I am struck by how familiar and how similar it all looks.  My photographs from this morning look little different from those I took back in 2003, 2004 and 2005!  In fact, a simple re-edit of the captions of my previous work and I could convince you that the photograph was taken just yesterday!

The scale is different.  Absolutely.  But the visible consequences are the same as: dead bodies and lost lives; destroyed homes and displaced families; angry funerals and political exploitation; protest marches and armed men promising revenge; physical destruction and families trying to rebuild.

We have been here before.  We are here again.

As I walk through Gaza with my little camera in hand, and around me scramble some of the world’s finest photojournalists capturing yet more of what we have already known and seen, I am desperately trying to find my own voice to this story.  And it is not helping that I know that in the not too distant future there will be yet more confrontations, and more military operations, and more funerals, and marches, and destroyed homes and displaced lives.

The cycle repeats itself.

Is there a way to stop the images from doing the same?

Asim Rafiqui, Untold Stories, January 22nd 2009

The work that emerged, first the documentation of the things and people left behind, and the portraits were a result of an adjustment that had to be made when I was confronted with the reality I saw and also the reality I felt. Gaza was there and dozens took it, but there was also a very personal reaction to coming back, a reaction I had not anticipated even as I had stood on the Rafah, Egypt border watching Israeli jets bombing tunnels a mere 100 meters away! It was only once I was in, and after a few days spent walking around and talking to people, that things started to fall apart.

This has happened before. It happened on a project about Polish immigrants in Slough, UK. The entire project work plan fells apart as I arrived in this incredibly non-descript, non-Polish town with nary a physical, cultural, or architectural clue to the presence of Poles – it just looked like any other lame, UK industrial city!

It happened in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti where the story refused to offer itself until and unless some personal risks that I had previously considered unnecessary had to be taken. Writer Malcolm Garcia and I discussed our situation for a couple of days at least before a decision was made to change our approach and go into the story in a new way.

And that uncertainty is in fact exciting, and a source of creativity if you can work through it. There have been instances when I have failed to work through – I never show those projects! :) I will share some of those situations with you when we meet in Ajmer.