ExperimentalExperience

Archive for the ‘Essays On Embedded Photojournalism’ Category

The Afghan War Now On The Menu Or What Happens If You Stick Your Head Really Far Up Your A**

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars on June 19, 2011 at 5:24 pm

MREs — Meals Ready to Eat — photos of everything on the menu for soliders from many different cultures who are all fighting in Afghanistan © Ashley Gilbertson / VII Network via Lens Culture

The embedded photojournalist is now so bored that he is photographing food. You can see the entire piece by clicking on the image above.

And this at a moment when civilians continue to die in an unjust war, an illegal war, and an absolutely unnecessary one. Things are so bad that our erstwhile puppet, a one Mr. Hamid Karzai, is complaining about it and doing it loudly. But of course, as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, such expression of ‘freedom’ are not for the people we are apparently there to ‘free’.

No, it is best that we continue to use our media to repaint this bloody, shoddy and shameless military frat-party as some noble, casual, innocent, benign dinner party. I hate to say this, but someone has to call such rubbish work precisely what it is: rubbish.

Our cameras, and hence our society’s eyes, are turned to the banal and seriously ludicrous. Perhaps I will say nothing more than to counter-point this fine, artistic presentation of food with this also very fine, journalistic presentation of the consequences of once the food has been digested – the waste that we do not want to look at.

“]

Gravediggers of Afghanistan and Pakistan have been kept busy as the US drone war has expanded, but civilian deaths remain undercounted as mendacious officials build a myth of technological accuracy and violent 'justice' [REUTERS

In a fine piece called The Magic Realism Of Body CountsMohammad Idress Ahmad pointed out:

At the end of 2009, the Pakistani daily Dawn calculated that, of the 708 people killed in 44 drone attacks that year, only 5 were known militants. Earlier that year, The News, Pakistan’s other major English-language daily, had calculated that between January 14, 2006, and April 8, 2009, 60 drone attacks killed 701 people – of whom only 14 were known militants.

This is only the tip of the ice-berg. We don’t want to think about what is happening inside Afghanistan itself where no journalists or other institutions have bothered to keep count. To say nothing about the criminality, corruption, and sheer waste that are the lives of the people of Afghanistan under our ‘gourmet’ occupation has been completely erased from our view. That Afghanistan remains, after over 10 years of an American presence and an American controlled, and mind you, illegitimate, puppet government, on the most dangerous country for the very Afghan women we apparently went to liberate and stay there to protect, is simply shameful.

Trust Law Graphic

This is under our benign watch. This is after eleven years of an American style Mc-democracy and its only getting worse. And yet none of the daily socio-economic pathologies of Afghanistan makes it to us out here in the ‘civilized’ world. It is simply erased from our eyes because we are too busy cozying up to our ‘boys and girls’ and studying the menu!

In the face of atrocities, killings, maiming, torture, indefinite incarcerations and a general atmosphere of repression and military occupation, it is shocking that individuals, publications and institutions think that works such as this is worthy of production, publication and promotion. As a citizen of a country involved in multiple illegal and brutals wars, and where we avoid a serious discussion about the consequences of these wars for the people we are waging them for and against, and the legality them, this kind of work only comes as yet another slap in the face leaving me feeling mocked and humiliated.

I mean, we aren’t even trying to be seriously anymore. There are photographer’s producing stories about the joys of post-war Iraq, in complete denial of the psychotic reality of the ‘client’ state that we have created there. This is sheer and simple obfuscation if not blatant propaganda. These are serious war, with massive human and social consequences, to say nothing about devastation and death, and we just don’t give a damn! Why even go! Why not just do a different story, but one at least that is real, and has meaning, and reflects a genuine intellect and critical engagement. Why bother to do this?

This is not even serious anymore.

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

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

Creative Common Copyright Fab34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

What It Looks Like When You Leave The Embed Or Thank Goodness Some Remember The Basics

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Our Wars, The Daily Discussion on October 30, 2010 at 3:20 pm

Jeremy Scahill has written a fascinating piece for The Nation called Killing Reconciliation. He and film maker Rick Rowley (of Big Noise Films – see a recent one called The Return Of The Warlords on Afghanistan) traveled in Afghanistan outside the predictability and suffocating inanity of the ‘embedded’ war and bring back some fascinating insights into the situation.

He was also interviewed on Democracy Now! which you can see here:

Jeremy Scahill On DemocracyNow! (Click Image To Go To Interview)

Jeremy Scahill On DemocracyNow! (Click Image To Go To Interview)

In case you don’t bother to listen to the interview, here is a summary of what he had to say:

So, to give you a sense of what’s happening, what the United States is doing through its night raids, where they’re going into people’s homes, they’re corralling women, which is just anathema to the culture there, into one room, hooding men, zip-tying their arms, helicoptering them to secret prisons—what they’re doing is they’re enraging populations throughout Afghanistan that wouldn’t necessarily support the Taliban. So what you see happening is that the United States says, “We’re here to win hearts and minds,” their targeted killing campaign, the reliance on bad information from individuals in Afghanistan who are accusing their neighbors of being Taliban to settle personal grudges. The perception is that the United States government is just on a killing spree there, that they rarely get the right people. The Karzai government is utterly corrupt to the bone and exists only for the purpose of facilitating corruption. When you combine those things and then you look at the rhetoric coming from the Obama administration and the military, that we’re there to win hearts and minds, you realize that the single greatest blows being dealt to the stated US strategy in Afghanistan are being dealt by the US itself through this targeted killing campaign.

Let me repeat:

…the single greatest blows being dealt to the stated US strategy in Afghanistan are being dealt by the US itself through this targeted killing campaign.

The entire interview is essential reading/listening.

(Thanks to Osman Ahmed.)

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.

 

The Spotlight Of Humanity Or How We Are Told To Look Only Where They Tell Us To Look

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, Photography on July 30, 2010 at 10:00 am

It is probably one of the most blatant uses of photography as propaganda that I have seen in a long time. And I am glad for it because it reveals explicitly how easily images can be put to the service of an agenda of power and entrenched interests. And how easily photographs can mislead if not ‘read’ carefully.

‘What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan’ the cover screams. The answer is made obvious. The shocking photograph closes the mind, numbs thought, distracts insight and silences protest.

If it were only so simple. If we were only so easily fooled.

(Just a few days ago I wrote a post complaining that the Afghani and Iraqi have been completely erased from our media and from the interests of photojournalists. So the irony of this cover is not lost on me!)

Jodi Bieber’s (a photographer whose work I love!) portraits of Afghani women victims of domestic/family violence have been mutilated into a self-righteous and frankly hypocritical call to support an American military occupation that is increasingly brutal, murderous and simply untenable. I have to believe given Bieber’s intelligence that she was not aware of how this work would finally be put to use.

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.

Yes, its American imperial power in the service of the woman!

That seemingly intelligent people (I am giving the Editors of the magazine the benefit of the doubt here!) will offer us these empty bromides, these false and frankly insulting arguments about their deep concern and love of the Afghan woman’s freedom, begs the question ‘How stupid do they think we are?’

In fact, so blatant was the propaganda aspect of this photo essay that the Managing Editor had to give a separate explanation in the same magazine to explain the editorial decision and the choice of the cover. To cover his tracks I suppose. And I quote:

I thought long and hard about whether to put this image on the cover of TIME. First, I wanted to make sure of Aisha’s safety and that she understood what it would mean to be on the cover. She knows that she will become a symbol of the price Afghan women have had to pay for the repressive ideology of the Taliban.

The compassion and humanity flow from the page. With that sweeping and entirely wrong summary, he goes on to drop the other shoe:

We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground…What you see in these pictures and our story is something that you cannot find in those 91,000 documents: a combination of emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land and the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead.

This statement is disingenuous and misleading. What is actually going on the ground is that a war effort has lost its course, that civilians are being killed, that torture is standard operating procedure, that corrupt and brutal warlords lord over an oppressed population, that an illegitimate government has been foisted onto the country, that heroin remains its largest export and the brother of the so-called ‘leader’ its largest beneficiary. What is also left unsaid is why Aisha’s picture on the cover, and not one of the many women (men and children) maimed, crippled and killed under US/NATO bombs and assaults?

What about this picture?

Fazel Muhamad Fazel Muhamad, 48, holding pictures of family members who were killed in the attack. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Fazel Muhamad Fazel Muhamad, 48, holding pictures of family members who were amongst nearly a 100 people killed in a NATO airstrike aimed at a few alleged Taliban fighters. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Obviously the Taliban are not the only ones exploiting Afghani women and turning them into pawns in the service of larger political objectives. A circumcised humanity is no humanity at all. A carefully demarcated outrage, a walled-off moral indignation is nothing but hypocrisy. There are many injustices and acts of violence and brutality taking place in Afghanistan and being done so under our watch. Everyone knows this. Few will simply admit it. This magazine too knows it, but it chooses to offer us a selected outrage, an easily exploited and manufactured ‘injustice.

Its silence about people suffering under our presence, the injustices being committed by us and our allies, and the many dead that keep littering the already blood soaked soil of this blighted nation, is dismaying never more so when it decided to take this immature and inane stance on its covers.

Fortunately others have already caught on to this cheap game. Many have already voiced their outrage, including The Feminist Peace Network which released a statement in protest and concluded by saying:

Imagine instead of contributing to the violence in Afghanistan that further harms women, we were to provide humanitarian aid that improved the lives of Afghan women. Imagine if we had taken the billions of ‘reconstruction’ funds that are unaccounted for in Iraq and given that money to responsible organizations to actually rebuild and strengthen the social infrastructure of both countries. Oh wait, then we couldn’t use the women excuse to continue to fund the military industrial complex. Enough already, women are not an excuse for militarism and war.

Others have also spoken out including A Developing Story:Time, Photography, Propaganda?, and BagNewsNotes: Your Turn: What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan?Try…What’s Happening On This Cover? and Conscientious: Afghanistan, Women and War, and Jezebel: A Visual Introduction To An Afghan Woman’s Mutilation, and The Nation: What Also Happens If We Leave Afghanistan, and I am sure there will be others to come.

So here is mine.

A close examination of the subjects of the photographs and the associated captions provides some interesting insights. If one was hoping to view the series of photographs and come away with a sense of the cruelties of the Taliban, then one is left deeply disappointed. Not a single victim portrayed in the photo essay is a victim of Taliban violence. She is a victim of domestic violence, or family abuse, or even cultural negligence and disregard. But none of the victims can specifically be suggested to have suffered from an act unique to the ideology of the Taliban. In this regard the photo essay is a careful sleight of hand because its title “Women Of Afghanistan: Living Under The Threat Of The Taliban” clearly suggests that we are seeing examples of Taliban cruelty and inhumanity.

But the captions betray and tell us otherwise.

What they reveal is that nine years after we occupied this country and took over either directly or indirectly control of its legal, police, and various social institutions, women continue to suffer and that brutal, dehumanizing social and familial practices continue unabated. Lets remember, the Taliban no longer rule there, but we do.

But lets take a closer look at the images and their captions to see the ‘atmosphere’ and ‘references’ offered to help make the case of Taliban brutality.

The first four of five set of images keep referring to ‘parliamentarians’ or ‘the parliament’, ignoring the fact that what is in place at the moment is a completely illegitimate government that sits on the seats of power on the basis of an election so corrupt that its UN administrators had to resign in protest. It is a ‘parliament’ of warlords and killers and the token woman, run by a man who has no credibility, and whose brother happens to be the largest drug baron in the country. It is a parliament that was ‘created’ on the basis of fraud, and is maintained on the basis of American/NATO soldiers. But you would not know this from the words on offer in the captions.

And ironically, the editors at the magazine failed to edit Fawzia Koofi’s (the woman in the first image) comment that she ‘…fears that new election rules may make it more difficult to succeed. She fears that outspoken women like her will be sidelined.” This fear is a fear of the American backed regime that is currently in power – of Karzai’s corruption and illegitimacy. Both the fraudulent parliament, and the constrained on democracy being created are not Taliban pathologies clearly, but of our own allies!

The next of set of images moves us towards women that we are expected to associated as abused and victims of violence of the Taliban. But in fact their details further say nothing of the sort! Sakina (image 6) is a victim of the practice of child marriage, and well known Afghani tribal practice that people (Afghani and others) have been trying to address for generations. Sakina is abused by her husband and is a clear victim of domestic abuse and violence. There is no Taliban connection here. Islam (image 7), is also clear victim of a hideous family abuse and domestic violence. A cruel mother-in-law (aren’t they all!), an abusive and deranged husband. The portrait of the two prisoners (image 8), Nasimgul and Gul Barar, tells us that they are prisoners, but does not tell us why. What is their crime? What were they convicted of? And they are prisoners under the Karzai regime, so where is the Taliban connection? Image 9 is of Shireen Gul, who was forced into crime by her husband and later jailed. Her husband and his relatives were hanged for their crimes! Once again, there is no suggestion here of a Taliban threat, merely of criminality and a legal system that seems to love capital punishment. The Texans must be happy. Image 10 takes us to Zohal Sagar, a young girl who lost her parents in ‘the war’. What war? Which conflict? Afghanistan has been at perpetual war for decades, even before the Soviet invasion? What is this caption talking about? The next image has the Abadini family, the woman photographed in a burqa. The burqa is not a Taliban innovation, though they perfected its consistent use and abuse. Its a dress used and worn in the region well before the Taliban. But we are again not revealing any specific issue related to the Taliban or a unique pathology that their ideology offers. The picture is of a conventional Afghan woman as millions would dress even before the Taliban. It a picture of a cultural issue.

And finally, the finale; the final image of a woman called ‘Aisha’ and the image the magazine’s editor chose – because shock always has the effect of stunting thought and numbing analysis. What does one say when confronted with such cruelty towards anyone, let alone a woman. Nothing. And that is precisely what this image is meant to do – silence us into submission. And since this is the most moving and disturbing of images, and the one most egregious and callously exploited by this magazine, let me say more about my point here.

Lets remember; it is the USA/NATO that is in power in Afghanistan, not the Taliban. The abuse that Aisha faced, abuse at the hands of her husband and her husband’s family that can be carried out with impunity after nine years of an American presence and an American/NATO foisted ‘government’ in the country. As the organization Women For Afghan Women In Afghanistan tell us that:

[Aisha]…was sold at the age of 10 by her father to a married man, a Talib. He kept her in the stable with the animals until she was 12 (when she got her first menstrual period). At the age of 12 he married her. From the day that she arrived in his house, she was beaten regularly by this man and his family. Sometimes she was beaten so badly that she couldn’t get up for days. Six months ago before she came to us, she was beaten so badly by her husband that she thought that she was going to die. She ran away and went to the neighbor’s house. The neighbor took to her to the police.

What happened to her is cruel and inhuman. But it is not unique to Afghanistan, nor to the Taliban. She is abused by ‘a Talib’ but is that his principal trait? Is that all that mattered about him that he was religiously conservative? Are we to believe that there is a direct link between his religious orthodoxy and his violent propensities? That would be what is being suggested here of course. And it can be suggested here because he is a Muslim. Not an individual with a history, with pathologies, with a history worthy of exploring in specifics. Her husband carried out these brutalities, and whereas he may have been delusional, violent, depraved, fundamentalist or whatever, he was not ‘the Taliban’. These remain individual, local acts of violence against women, and this is not news in Afghanistan nor in other countries in the region. This is not the pathology of a political creed, but the pathology of an individual, a family and possibly a broader society that tolerated this. It came first from within – the family, and then was sanctioned from without.

What we are confronting here is a socio-cultural pathology and one that has many manifestations that go beyond disfigurement. Aisha does not represents a consequence outcome unique a Taliban pathology, but is one of thousands of women who are confronted with violence and abuse and repression in the country and have for decades. By our modern standards of equality and universal justice, the condition of Afghani women is an issue of concern and it has been the focus of concern and action for activist both domestic and international for decades. But the causes are socio-economic and cultural to say nothing of the blatant use of an issue irrelevant to our reasons for being the country in the first place.

There is an attempt here to confuse us – all violence, pathologies, and decadence is ‘The Taliban’ and hence fundamentalist Islam. The fearsome bogeyman at the back of racist campaigns such as this one. And all things civilized and chivalrous are and can only be ‘Western/American’ and hence ‘modern’. A classical colonialist’s magic trick; we own all that is good, you are all that is backward and retrograde. But the issues surrounding the abuse and violence against women, as in any country, are far more complex than an imagined homogenous and well understood entity called ‘the Taliban’, a title that today has no more meaning than ‘the bad guys’. Simplifications of this sort are all the rage these days, so much so that Pankaj Mishra had to call them out in a recent article in The New Yorker called Islamismism by pointing out that:

The sad truth is that the problems [blamed] on Islam—fear of sexuality, oppression of women, militant millenarianism—are to be found wherever traditionalist peoples confront the transition to an individualistic urban culture of modernity. Many more young women are killed in India for failing to bring sufficient dowry than perish in “honor killings” across the Muslim world. Such social pathologies no more reveal the barbaric core of Hinduism or Islam than domestic violence in Europe and America defines the moral essence of Christianity or the Enlightenment.

The photo essay misleads us into believing that we are reading and witnessing victims of a uniquely pathological movement called the Taliban – who conveniently happen to be our chosen ‘enemy’ of the moment, while in fact it offers us individuals who have suffered egregiously at the hands of family and relatives. As do hundreds of thousands of women across the region, and millions more across the globe. It confuses the pathologies of patriarchy for a religion and for a religio-political movement. The magazine through a cruel sleight of hand, has exploited these women’s trauma and suffering for an ideological, imperialist and domestic policy agenda. And in the process exploited these women and their histories for propaganda purposes.

Violence against women remains a concern across the globe, but here, on this cover, it is transformed into something unique, specific and as a justification for war. In an opinion piece in the New York Times, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum in an article titled Veiled Threats pointed out that:

According to the U. S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, intimate partner violence made up 20 percentof all nonfatal violent crime experienced by women in 2001. The National Violence Against Women Survey, cited on the B.J.S. Web site,  reports that 52 percent of surveyed women said they were physically assaulted as a child by an adult caretaker and/or as an adult by any type of perpetrator.

Can we invade ourselves?

Now before I am misunderstood (and I realize that few will read this far!) Let me be clear on one point; the suffering of the Afghani woman under the Taliban regime was extreme and hideous. No organization documented and spoke out more against that period and the treatment of women under that regime than the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) which was led by Meena Keshwar Kamal. In 1979, Kamal began a campaign against Soviet forces and the Soviet-supported government of Afghanistan. Her activities and views, as well as her work against the government and religious fundamentalists led to her assassination on February 4, 1987. But the organization lived on and carried on its work to reveal the horrors of the Taliban regime.

In fact, it was so popular in our propaganda war against the Soviet that RAWA that it was awarded over 16 awards and certificates from around the world for its work for human rights and democracy, some of the awards include The sixth Asian Human Rights Award – 2001, The French Republic’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity Human Rights Prize, 2000, Emma Humphries Memorial Prize 2001, Glamour Women of the Year 2001, 2001 SAIS-Novartis International Journalism Award from Johns Hopkins University, Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition from the U.S. Congress, 2004, Honorary Doctorate from University of Antwerp (Belgium) for outstanding non-academic achievements, as well as many other awards.

But when RAWA started to speak out against the American/NATO presence and the regime, it was sidelined. RAWA is a severe critic of the American/NATO alliance and its cronies in government. It has continued it struggle for Afghani women’s rights and protection and argued that:

The US “War on terrorism” removed the Taliban regime in October 2001, but it has not removed religious fundamentalism which is the main cause of all our miseries. In fact, by reinstalling the warlords in power in Afghanistan, the US administration is replacing one fundamentalist regime with another. The US government and Mr.Karzai mostly rely on Northern Alliance criminal leaders who are as brutal and misogynist as the Taliban.

But you would know this from the magazine, which has made a mockery of any pretense of independence and integrity. It tries to hide that it is the US/NATO that has sunk billions into the country, that controls its government and all civic institutions, and that these crimes against women are taking place under its watch.

But there are dozens of pictures the magazine chooses not to run or write about. Here is one below that you will not see on the covers of the magazine.

A victim of a US airstrike in bala baluk 2009 which possibly killed up to 150 people including women and children

A victim of a US airstrike in Bala Baluk in 2009 which possibly killed up to 150 people including women and children

To exploit the suffering of some Afghani women in order to justify our repression, torture, incarceration, and killings of other Afghani women (and children and men) is simply hideous to observe. And this war, and our presence in Afghanistan involves all these hideous things. We are being asked to sheds tears for one carefully selected set of suffering to later justify or simply look away from the infliction of another set of suffering. That is, we exploit these women’s stories to justify our military occupation of a land and a people increasingly determined to oust us from there!

The Managing Editor paints our presence there as purely noble:

…she is in a secret location protected by armed guards and sponsored by the NGO Women for Afghan Women. Aisha will head to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery sponsored by the Grossman Burn Foundation, a humanitarian organization in California. We are supporting that effort.

Ah, civilization here. Barbarism there. Its all too clear.

The fact is that the brutalities against Afghan women are not the exclusive purview of the so-called Taliban. They are a pathology that continues under our chosen allies in government, just as they had continued under various other regimes in the past. This is precisely what RAWA has been protesting (see here, and here, and here for example) and why their voices are today largely missing from our American media. Attempts at legal and other reforms have been attempted in the past, and resisted violently in the past. There have been many, including the former King, who attempted to confront the condition of the country’s women – his wives appeared in public forums unveiled which created great consternation amongst the conservative population. When the Russians tried to do it, we complained that they were undermining Afghani culture.

In the 1970s the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) – Afghanistan’s Communist part, made up of two factions the Khalq and the Parcham, attempted a series of reforms that later tipped the country into rebellion. It was the rebellion that initiated the Soviet invasion of the country. The focus of the reforms were economic, land and such. But a parts of the reform were laws that abolished bride price, set minimum ages for marriage and laid it down that freedom of choice must be allowed. The regime also tried to push towards universal literacy and education for both sexes (based on a Marxist curriculum). But as Martin Ewans points out in his book ‘Afghanistan:A New History

…these measures…took no account at all of the complexities of Afghan society and the interlocking economic and social relationships on which it depended…the practice of buying and selling wives, bride price was part of a traditional marriage contract, by which the bride was given compensating security, and, the reform struck at the heart of familial relationships.’.

(page 139 – 140).

We have reduced Afghanistan to a caricature of itself. Its people, their (horribly war devastated) society, their ways and norms, are completely unknown to us or simply ignored. By reducing the suffering of these women in the photo essay to ‘evils of the Taliban’ we do nothing but a further disservice to the women themselves, and to any genuine possibility of social and cultural reform. But to use these women to argue for an unjust, increasingly bloody and clearly disoriented military adventure is simply immoral and inhumane.

We are not in Afghanistan as protectors of their women. It was not the basis of our venture there, and it can’t be, despite this clod footed attempt by this magazine, the reasons for our staying there. The nation is in rebellion, the violence is increasing, hundreds are being killed, a corrupt and isolated leadership is maintained behind American/NATO protected barbed wire and guns, the drug trade is out of control, and the presidents brother and cronies are the wealthiest men in the country, while millions continue to suffer in penury and deprivation. To suggest that it is the women that have become our cause is to insult their loss and trauma, and to insult our intelligence and sense of history, justice and humanity.

When ever we are offered a choice between two options, we have to explore and question so that we can find others. There are never two options, nor a world lived in black or white. Aisha’s fate and suffering is as much our fault and the continuation of such pathologies a consequence of our presence. From the moment we stepped into that country, and began a military occupation there, we became contributors to its pathologies and to its possibilities. We Americans cannot pick and choose our influence, our impact. As principally and primarily a military force our consequences are overtly disruptive, destructive and dismantling. A nation that has suffered the trauma of decades of war has a culture, society, and values seriously contorted and maimed. And when we contribute to those decades of war and suffering with our own military might, we contribute to maintaining if not adding to the contortions and maiming.

The same magazine shedding tears over Aisha has remained silence over every other Afghani woman who has died under our bombs, drone missiles and M-16 fire. Are they not women? Were they not brutalized? How do you choose whose liberation you value? As our Afghan war falls to pieces, this attempt to foist a hysterical and ‘shock doctrine’ piece of propaganda suggests that the administration, along with its media hacks, is getting truly desperate and looking for ways to shut out minds if not our eyes, from its failure there.

The dehumanization and violence against the Afghan woman are genuine and serious. But it is not just a consequence of the Taliban, nor a clarion call for continued military occupation. It will not be resolved by military action, and it is not a concern or interest of our political and military leadership. These associations are desperate, infantile and insulting. That they are made after weeks of careful planning, execution of photographs, writing and editing tells us a lot about the limited intellects running our magazines.

And I will repeat; what irks me the most is the carefully selected sense of moral outrage for one set of victims and the complete silence and in fact justification for the sufferings of another. It is the hypocritical cleaving of our morality, our humanism, our sense of justice, outrage and anger that I find the most insidious act here. These photographs have become weapons of war, aimed at our minds to numb us into submission, to reduce us into towing the arguments of voices of violence and suffering. These photographs have been reduced from the possibility of a larger concern about the complete range of war crimes, crimes against humanity and criminal acts taking place in Afghanistan under our watch and frequently because of our watch, and instead carefully elided most all to turn a small spotlight towards a specific set of victims that we can carve into spokespeople for our political, strategic, military and imperial agendas. This is hypocritical concern at its best…or worst should I say. It reduces our sense of moral outrage and shared humanity to only where the magazine chooses to focus our attention. Its immoral and its unacceptable. Aisha is not the only victim, nor the most important one. So what about the rest? Organizations like RAWA have waged a consistent battle on this front, refusing to fall into the trap of convenient political calculations masquerading as a humanitarian and moral crusade. I wish our journalism could be even half as consistent and stop exploiting women to serve political interests.

Photographing The Unseen Or What Conventional Photojournalism Is Not Telling Us About Ourselves

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, Photography, The Daily Discussion on July 27, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Trevor Paglen is a man on a mission and it is one that reminds us that what makes any work of photography relevant, interesting, important or even significant, are the ideas and intentions that inform it. Anything else is merely gazing at pretty pictures.

Unmarked 737 at "Gold Coast" Terminal Las Vegas, NV Distance ~ 1 mile 10:44 p.m.

Unmarked 737 at "Gold Coast" Terminal Las Vegas, NV Distance ~ 1 mile 10:44 p.m.

Paglen has spent the greater part of the last decade photographing, tracking, highlighting and revealing the dark, illegal, horror-ridden underbelly of the great American ‘Global War Against Terror’ (GWAT). Paglen is a 35-year-old artist, geographer, writer, and photographer who holds both a B.A. (religious studies, 1998) and a Ph.D. (geography, 2008) from Cal, as well as an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He’s currently a researcher at Berkeley.

A review of his work tells us that:

…his work traces the seam line between the government’s desire for secrecy and the public’s right to know. Besides the spy satellites, which he captures arcing across the night sky in lush art prints, Paglen has photographed classified air bases; tracked down CIA cover names and displayed them on gallery walls; and compiled a book full of patches from Pentagon black-ops units. It’s called I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me. The patches—in some cases, the only evidence that the programs even exist—feature an absurd gallery of aliens, reapers, and wizards along with perverse accompanying mottos. One from the stealth bomber wing reads Gustatus Similis Pullus, Latin for “tastes like chicken.”

His most recent work, Invisible, (thanks to Conscientious) recently released by Aperture books, is based on his eight year documentation of secret CIA flights and ‘black sites’ that the government does not want us to know about. It reveals the secret military sites, but also, and perhaps most importantly, his works reveal the many who have been ‘disappeared’ in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘our liberties’. In an installation project called ‘Missing Persons’, Paglen lays out the names of the missing. As the exhibition description points out:

Since the mid 1990s, the CIA has spearheaded a covert program to kidnap suspected terrorists from all over the world. These people are then brought to a network of secret CIA-operated prisons, called “black sites,” where they are routinely tortured. The CIA calls this the “extraordinary rendition” program.

People taken to these secret prisons are effectively “disappeared”: there are no public records of their captivity, their identities are kept secret, and they are prohibited from communicating with the outside world. Among CIA operatives, they are called “ghost detainees.”

The locations of these black sites, known by code-names such as “Salt Pit” and “Bright Light,” are some of the CIA’s deepest secrets.

To capture and subsequently transport these ghost detainees, the CIA uses a fleet of unmarked airplanes. These airplanes are owned by intricate networks of front companies whose boards of directors are non-existent people. Missing Persons is a collection of their signatures culled from business records, aircraft registrations, and corporate filings.

He has also documented our ‘black site’ – prisons and torture centers in Afghanistan for example, CIA’s secret flights and also co-authored a book called Torture Taxi: On The Trial Of CIA’s Rendition Flights


You can even track his most recent investigations on his blog.
This is critical work, and it is the work of a man who understands the fundamentals of democratic engagement and dissent. He understands that there are forces that claim to ‘defend’ our republic but are in fact engaged in activities that undermine it. It draws our eyes and mind towards basic structures of power and repression that underpin modern ‘democracies’ and the ‘background noise’ of control and violence that is believed essential for sustaining it.

For me personally, such works do something else very important - they highlight the shallowness of what passes for ‘photojournalism’ in our modern world. They remind us how most photojournalists prefer to pander in the simple, the obvious and the conventional, while never engaging in the complex and crucual. Our newspapers and photographers have, either out of convenience, laziness or sheer careerism, chosen to veil the GWAT behind beautifully rendered and largely distracting projects produced from the confines of embedded positions on the front line.

Conventional photojournalism – with its insistent focus on combat and consequences – has gone a long way towards allowing us to forget that we, the United States of America, is in an illegal and brutal military occupation of two nations whose inhabitants continue to fight and resist our presence there through guns, politics and a large-scale, popular rejection of our legitimacy and relevance. The hundreds of thousands of troops that are needed to maintain these post-occupation pathologies called Iraq and Afghanistan reflect our failure, and the vast chasm that exists between the region’s population and our imagined ideas of our role and impact in the region. These projects bring us to ‘the combat’ – the fireworks, and stun our minds into unthinking simplicities while distracting us from the general un-sustainability, and injustice of the wars themselves. They ensure that the hard political questions, the difficult presumptions and prejudices that assume that we have a right to be there, are not seen or heard. They avoid the ugly realities as they have manifest themselves at home (renditions, tortures, illegal detentions, immigrant sweeps, racial discrimination, xenophobia, impoverishment etc.) and abroad (mass killings, torture, the administration of the occupation, civilian displacement, dispossession, destruction of societies and culture, corruption, drugs, NGO culture of excess etc.)

Our embedded photographers and journalists – many celebrated with awards and celebrity screenings at major film festivals, keep coming back to convince us that they have ‘seen’ the war, and that it has been ‘reported’ it. Some seem so determined to convince us the that the ‘embedded’ program is without constraints that their protests are starting to sound a bit too desperate, a bit too defensive and frankly a bit too insulting. These photographer – award winners, movie makers and celebrities, are working too hard to hide from us the fact that ‘embedding’ no matter how ‘free’ and ‘friendly’ hides the truth, obfuscates the horrors and does not allow you to call yourself a ‘reporter. I don’t care how many Sundance Awards they bring back, they are merely propagandist because they challenge nothing, question nothing, confront nothing and resist nothing. It is not physical courage the defines journalism, but moral and intellectual courage.

And the real measure of the ‘propaganda’ nature of such works is the fact that the Afghan and the Iraqi has been completely erased from our minds and eye. What is worse, they have been erased from our moral equation. They do not exist. The injustices inflicted on them are not worthy of consideration. Their dead are not counted. Their humiliations irrelevant. Their blood does not run. They are merely objects upon which we act and not humans struggling to regain control of their own lives and futures. And resisting. We obfuscate their motives and humanity behind words like ‘Taliban’ and ‘Al-Qaeda’ so as to make it easier for us to justify indiscriminate killings and murder. Front page stories about the ‘liberation of their women’ act as justifications for acts of mass murder, bombing of civilians, pre-emptive killings, summary arrests, terrorizing of civilian populations in order to control them, construction of barriers/walls, torture and injustice that we carry out with impunity. Our righteousness needs to be fed, and our photographers and journalists have been happily doing that. We are constantly being shown as ‘saving’, ‘helping’, ‘aiding’, ‘educating’, ‘liberating’  the Afghan or the Iraqi and its all done with the same desperation with which the dark side is erased. Its not as if they are not confronting, resisting, speaking, challenging, rejecting, fighting, demanding, and defending. It is we who are not listening, or simply not allowing their voices and acts to be represented to others like us.

But it’s not just the embedded works. Another set of photographers have focused on the ‘aftermath’ of those 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. Most all the projects concentrate on American soldiers, – with parallel works being produced in the UK, Germany, Sweden or elsewhere from the ‘coalition of the willing’ countries, and assiduously avoid any revelation of anything called an Iraqi or an Afghani.

The fact remains that hundreds if not thousands of Afghani civilians are dying each year in our war. Hundreds of thousands died as a direct result of our invasion of Iraq. To say nothing of the near million who may have died as a result of our sanctions against the country. The erasures of these people are reflected in the ridiculous ‘outrage’ that has been unleashed because of the leaking of CIA Afghan logs. The Afghan War Logs reveal the thousands of civilians that have been killed in our war there but rather than be outraged by this horror, we are outraged that people now know! We are outraged at the leak, not the realities and brutalities the leaks reveal.

The same misguided outrage has been targeted against WikiLeaks that has been quietly revealing the realities we so wish to forget. Few things were amusing (facetious comment, people!) than Robert Grenier, former CIA station chief in Islamabad (they have one!) and current CIA counter-terror director, writing for Al-Jazeera a piece called “US Needs Lesson in ‘Secret-Keeping’”. I can ask what a CIA director is doing writing for this network, but I will ask why he felt he had to make such an effort to suggest that the logs reveal nothing. He is wrong; they reveal the incompetence and sheer callous disregard for the civilians that is the base idea of this military operation in Afghanistan, and it reveals the failure of the American military machine to make any real progress anywhere within the country. They reveal a military occupation over a resistant population in progress. They reveal us as jackboot occupiers and in cohort with those who are considered corrupt, unjust, illegitimate and venal. It reveals how we have reduced our finest to acts of low repression and military violence. They reveal how after nine years we are still struggling, fighting, retreating, and blaming each other while the nation remains mired in corruption, violence and a movement that may be retrograde and violent but has been allowed to position itself as nationalist and anti-occupation. Yes, the appeal of the resistance comes not from any particular message of ‘Islam’ or ‘Global Jihad’, but from simply pointing out the inequities and injustices prevalent in the country under our watch.

But all this is entirely missing from the works being produced at the moment. The wars that exist in the documents of the CIA is nothing like the war that is offered to us by our reporters and photographers. The latter is a vision from Dante’s Inferno, the former a cleansed Hollywood production complete with acceptable rending of ‘violence’ so that can are not ‘disturbed’ from our morning coffee.

In fact, there is nothing that one can turn to and understand the broader consequences of our wars. And yet we continue to produce a whole host of works that concentrate on the trauma of our ‘boys and girls’. I do not mean to dismiss the suffering of the American soldiers injured or those of the American families suffering from loss. Far from it. But I am in fact dismayed that as Americans at war we can be so ignorant, dismissive and blind to the vast sufferings that are being inflicted on others who are also human, but happen not to be American (or British, or Swedish etc.). I am ashamed at the silence in the face of the murders being committed, the horrors being inflicted, the injustices raining upon the heads of a poor, impoverished nation whose people are today rising up in revolt against our presence there and the hideous, murderous, greedy and callous ‘democrats’ we have foisted on the people. The sheer shame of the illegal and illegitimate Karzai government – supported purely and only because of our money, is perhaps just too much to take!

They, the ‘other’, is completely missing in this discussion. The one-sidedness is difficult to accept. The attention is absolutely and exclusively on ‘us’ and ‘ourselves’, which is what these projects are about in the end. 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 innocent victims, and the real crimes committed here. 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 failed defending the faith, 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 to garland ourselves with righteousness and the self-pity of victims. And this is particularly obvious when there is little or scant attention being paid to those who are suffering, dying, being tortured, detained, displaced, deprived and devastated by our actions in their lands.

 Victims' families tell their stories following Nato airstrike in Afghanistan  'I took some flesh home and called it my son.' The Guardian interviews 11 villagers      * Reddit     * Buzz up     * Share on facebook (361)     * Tweet this (48)      * Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in Kunduz     * The Guardian, Saturday 12 September 2009     * Article history  Fazel Muhamad Fazel Muhamad, 48, holding pictures of family members who were killed in the attack. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Fazel Muhamad Fazel Muhamad, 48, holding pictures of family members who were killed in the attack. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Of course, we have a long history of turning our acts of brutality and genocide into comforting victimhood. The Vietnam conflict still awaits a memorial to the millions of Vietnamese who died under our bombs, the millions maimed and scarred for life, and the tens of thousands who continue to suffer the consequences of Agent Orange and other chemicals. To say nothing about war crimes tribunals and criminal indictments.

The Afghanistan War Logs, much like Paglen’s work, reveals the shocking shallowness of our photojournalistic coverage. They lift the covers over the very things we wish not to see or confront – the darker aspects of ourselves and our actions in the world. They remind us how much, how most of it, has just been left unsaid. It reminds us how redundant, and limited, our photographic works are and how desperately most photographers just seem to want to copy and imitate. Not think and challenge.  The surface distracts while the depth confuses.

The entire corpus of mainstream photojournalism pales in comparison to the efforts of real reporters and individuals confronting the complex set of administrative, military, covert, civic and political shenanigans and injustices required to maintain our posture in the GWAT.

It is in moments like this that I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s challenge to us:

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

David was trying to remind us to hold on the things that matter, and to not get distracted by the ‘fire and glory’, the empty rhetoric, the debilitating and restrictive legal and judicial measures that will only reduce us as citizens while doing little to confront our enemies. Tim Paglen reminds me that at least some have heard his call.

As citizens of this nation, as Americans, perhaps our greatest challenge today, perhaps one of our most important acts of freedom, is to question what we see, hear and read. To look and hear past the slickly produced photo essays, reportage, movies and documentaries, and explore their methods of creation, their sponsors, their producers, their restrictions and their prejudices.

In a world increasingly obsessed with ‘packaging’ and ‘presentation’, in a world where an iPad application is being suggested as something ‘interesting’, it is becoming crucial to examine the underlying ‘method’. Trevor Paglen has a method – individual, determined and dissenting, which informs his works and productions. And the truths that he reveals. It is ‘method’ that most scares our mainstream press and it is ‘method’ that will determine and define meaningful journalism vs. simply slick business news production. As bureaus close, as the media markets consolidate, as wires take over foreign reporting, as ‘collaborations’ with NGOs are sought as substitute for independent investigative, questioning journalism, as we ‘cut corners’ and ‘make efficient’, it is ‘method’ that becomes the key differentiator. All else will simply be ‘production’.

Interestingly A War Crime In Any Language Remains A War Crime & The Dead In Any Language Remain Dead

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Our Wars on January 4, 2010 at 8:02 pm

From PULSE media.

Offering Silence To The Oppressed Or How Photography Can Become A Weapon Of Repression

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, The Daily Discussion on October 23, 2009 at 11:20 am

An exhibition called ‘Beware The Cost Of War’ recently opened in London.

Reading about it in the New York Times ‘Lens’ blog left me deeply disappointed and concerned.

Let me explain.

(Aside: Yoav Galai, the curator, is someone I have called a friend for some time now and I hope that he will forgive me for this very critical review of what is something he clearly put a lot of work in to. It is not personal, but merely a reflection on this propensity in our world to fear speaking, to raise a voice, to add details and specifics where generalizations only confuse, perpetuate injustices and acquit the guilty. I am sorry Yoav. I must say my piece.)

In their book Another Way of Telling photographer Jean Mohr and writer/intellectual John Berger present an experiment where a series of Mohr’s photographs, each with their captions removed, are shown to a number of ordinary strangers and each is asked to explain what they see in the photograph. As Jean Mohr himself explains:

Was it a game, a test, an experiment? All three, and something else too; a photographer’s quest, the desire to know how the images he makes are seen, read, interpreted, perhaps rejected by others. In fact in face of any photo the spectator projects something of her or himself. The image is like a springboard. (page 42)

The result was that each individual described the photograph differently, thereby rending each photograph meaningless, and completely erasing it of history, context, intent and meaning and replacing them with what were little more than randomly created ideas based on fantasies, prejudices, and ignorances. The photos gave nothing to the viewer, the viewer merely imposed their ‘knowledge’ – factual and otherwise, onto the image. The images became springboards indeed, but they also became empty vessels into which the viewer could put anything and make them what s/he wanted. The images offered nothing, taught nothing, revealed nothing and as a result added nothing.

Jean Mohr also collaborated with the writer/intellectual Edward Said to produce what I consider to be one of the finest, most important, book of photojournalism ever – After The Last Sky. This book, about which I have written elsewhere, is a masterful collaboration between a photographer and a writer. It is one of those rare photography books that has managed to lift itself from the fashionable but frivolous shelves of photography books and into the more relevant Middle East History section of a bookstore.

The book grew out of an unusual context; in 1983 Edward Said was a consultant to the United Nations International Conference on the Question of Palestine (ICQP) and he suggested that some of Jean Mohr’s photographs of Palestinians be hung in the entrance hall to the main conference site in Geneva, Switzerland. The official response to this suggestion, as Said himself describes it in the book, was unusual; they would allow the photographs to be hung, but no words could accompany them, and no explanations.

It was then that Said and Mohr came up with the idea of writing about the Palestinians – about adding the words to the photographs. As Said explains:

Let us use photographs and text, we said to each other, to say something that hasn’t been said about Palestinians. (page 4)

But they were aware that the problems they faced was not a lack of text on this matter, but perhaps too much of it. But it was also clear that:

…for all the writing about them, Palestinians remain virtually unknown. Especially in the West, particularly in the United States, Palestinians are not so much a people as a pretext for a call to arms. (page 5)

Confronting this challenge about how to convey the Palestinian experience to a reluctant audience was not going to be easy, and yet it was crucial and clear that text was going to be a fundamental act of resistance, and that its place for a people oppressed was fundamentally important because:

Stateless, dispossessed, de-centered, we [Palestinians] are frequently unable either to speak the ‘truth’ of our experience or to make it heard. We do not usually control the images that represent us; we have been confined to spaces designed to reduce or stunt us; and we have often been distorted by pressures and powers that have been too much for us. (page 6)

“Beware The Cost Of War” is an exhibition of Israeli and Palestinian photographs now being shown in London. In a review written on the New York Times blog ‘Lens’, a review titled Stirring Images, No Names the writers explain that:

“Beware the Cost of War,” a show opening Friday at the Blackall Studios in London, will be conspicuous for many reasons — one of them being what it lacks: captions and credits next to the images, which were taken both by Israeli and Palestinian photographers.

The notion is that, without words, the pictures will be freer to speak for themselves.

In a slide show of some of the images we are shown scenes of grieving Palestinian and Lebanese families and of Israeli families. The curator, Yoav Galai, we are told:

…hoped viewers would discard customary ideological and political preconceptions as they looked at the images, many of which are deeply disturbing…

He is later quoted as saying:

“I realized it’s hard to show what’s really happening,” Mr. Galai said. “Once a photograph is out there, people ascribe whatever they want to it. So I thought, why not take all the pictures and tear them away from their narrative?”

Yoav Galai is a young photographer. An Israeli who has documented the destruction of the Palestinian social, cultural and physical space in occupied East Jerusalem, he and I have frequently communicated via email and I respect his individual voice and determination.

But sadly I find myself in deep conflict and disagreement with this entire exhibition, and the silencing of the experience, history, and narrative of the Palestinian people already suffering from decades of silencing, marginalization, and erasure. The entire impression of ‘balance’ here is specious, and frankly misrepresents the situation which is simply one of a powerful military occupier systematically repressing and controlling an otherwise unarmed and desperate Palestinian population.

Tearing away the narrative, the history, the context of a photograph is the best way to further enable people to ascribe whatever meaning people want to images, and hence, only confirm and not question their prejudices, hates, ignorances and fears.

That Israeli historians, intellectuals, writers and journalists can clearly speak of this, admitting to the injustices their government has been executing against the Palestinians, only reminds us of the vast gap in intellectual and physical courage that imbues our societies when it comes to the question of the rights of an Arab people.

This exhibition in its current format ends up committing a number of sins against the history of the situation it claims to speak about, and even about the lives of the people involved.

  • The exhibition removes context, so that we never know who is the occupier, and who the occupied. It pretends to suggest that everyone is a victim, when in fact that is not true. Israel is an occupying force, its citizens repeatedly voting into power civilians leaders, most all with deep military track records and connections, based on their ability to ‘handle the Palestinians’. The Palestinians are an unarmed people now trapped in quite possibly the most extensive, professionally administered, rationally planned, efficiently executed occupation regime in history.
  • The exhibition removes chronology, so that we never know whether the act occurred this year e.g. the brutal and unnecessary massacre of nearly 2000 Palestinians of Gaza in early 2009 prompted by Israeli domestic political needs and condemned in the recent UN Goldstone Report vs. the aftermath of a suicide bomb that occurred many years ago and the likes of which have not been repeated in years.
  • The exhibition removes history, so that we never know what it is that violence represents i.e. acts of legitimate violence in order to resist and overthrow and illegal occupation vs. acts of repressive violence meant to occupy, steal, and control.
  • The exhibition removes the ugliest of constant and material facts; the dehumanizing and degrading check points, the summary arrests, the illegal (and yes, please, they are illegal) settlements, the military patrols that enable them, the hideous barbarism of the fundamentalist, fanatical and humanly deviant Jewish settlers, the summary executions, the entire infrastructure – administrative, military, political, under-cover of the occupation regime, the displacements, the senseless closures, and the constant threat of violence that hangs in the air and frequently manifests itself into reality.

The exhibition in fact become a tool of oppression, creating ‘balance’ where there is none, offering the easy consumption of ‘violence’ while ensuring that nothing provokes us to realize the truths that create the violence, the injustices that continue to be perpetrated, and the powers that have to held accountable for what is a clear and simple crime against humanity and massive violation of international law.

As writer Peter Lagerquist comments after hearing and reading about this exhibit:

It’s not only offensive but brutalizing, because it perpetrates another violence on those pictures, and their subjects. They are robbed of meaning, the viewer is robbed of their ability to think critically about violence, rather than merely wringing their hands over it…All that we are left with here is diffuse pathos, the knowledge that violence is bad.  And this simply is not enough; we need to understand something else.

We don’t have to love the Palestinians, but why must we insist on shutting them up? Why must we be so dismissive of values and laws that we with such fanfare created and offered at Nuremburg and enshrined in so many UN charters and Geneva Conventions? Why, when it comes to the ‘lesser’ people, do our voices suddenly find no air, our minds no thoughts, our courage no will and our photographs no captions?

An oppressor wants to erase the voice of the oppressed. ‘Balance’ serves the interests of those exercising disproportionate violence and control over a weaker people and society. A people displaced, dispossessed, ignored, dehumanized, and incarcerated, in flagrant violation of our most valued principles of international law, justice and rights, do not need us to ‘remove’ their context, history and experiences of their suffering. On the contrary, it is precisely words, text, and voice that need to be used to unveil their experience. It is crucial to our responsibilities as reporters, journalists and photojournalists, to speak with courage and clarity and add our voice to those of the weak to counter, and challenge the easily heard and broader disseminated voice of the powerful.

Michael Massing took on the issue of specious ‘balance’ that today’s media organizations strive for and identified it as one of the major problems with journalism today. In a piece called The Press; The Enemy Within he quoted the writer Ken Silverstein (I am a big fan of Ken’s work!) who was then working on a piece about voting fraud in St. Louis and who found clear evidence of Republic Party manipulation of votes but was not allowed to say it as such and encouraged to ‘balance’ it with comments about similar actions, though far less systematic, by the Democrats:

I am completely exasperated by this approach to the news. The idea seems to be that we go out to report but when it comes time to write we turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should…attempt to fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. “Balanced” is not fair, it’s just an easy way of avoiding real reporting and shirking our responsibility to inform readers.

Any easy was to shirk our responsibility to inform readers, and I would add, help them understand the perspectives and principles that are in fact consistently and necessarily defensible. And we are being cowards to not admit that there are principles of law, justice and national behavior and they are enshrined in documents that we love to quote e.g. Sudan, Kosovo, or Kuwait when it suits our needs.

I quote Edward Said from his work Representations of the Intellectual when he points out that:

Universality means taking risks in order to go beyond the easy certainties provided to us by our background, language, nationality, which so often shield us from the reality of others. It also means looking for and trying to uphold a single standard for human behavior when it comes to such matters as foreign and social policy. (page xiv)

My point would be that for the contemporary intellectual [or individual] living at a time that is already confused by the disappearance of what seem to have been objective moral norms and sensible authority, is it unacceptable simply either blindly to support the behavior of one’s own country and overlook its crimes or to say rather supinely “I believe they all do it, and that’s the way of the world?”

To speak consistently is upholding standards of international behavior and the support of human rights is not to look inwards for a guiding light supplied to one by inspiration or prophetic intuition. Most…countries in the world are signatories to a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted and proclaimed in 1948, reaffirmed by every new member state of the UN. There are equally solemn conventions on the rules of war, on treatment of prisoners, on the rights of workers, women, children, immigrants and refugees. None of these documents says anything about ‘disqualified’ or less equal races or peoples. All are entitled to the same freedoms. (page 97)

This exhibition, sadly participated in by Palestinians photographers themselves, further oppresses the Palestinian experience, because it reduces everything to merely violence and sensationalism. This is the legacy of wire photography, and of mainstream photojournalism that chases blood, celebrates murder, and titillates through the tragic.

At a time when more than ever we need to speak with courage and clarity at the systematic dispossession of what little has been left to this blighted people, we have photojournalists and curators participating in a project of silence and obfuscation.

“Beware The Cost Of War’ unfortunately attempts to balance what is so terribly imbalanced. And in that process it misleads. There is nothing to be gained by wringing our hands at the hideousness of blood and flesh torn by bombs. There is nothing to be understood by images of mothers crying. There is no value in the sight of another babies still body. To produce something that can really only provoke pity – a debilitating and cowardly emotion, is to produce nothing at all. (I am reminded of Nietzsche’s argument that… the thirst for pity is a thirst for self-enjoyment, and at the expense of one’s fellow men. It reveals man in the complete inconsideration of his most intimate dear self, but not precisely in his ‘stupidity’.)

As photographers we must demand that the text be returned to us who made the works. Our eye and our text is our intent, our ideas, our values and our risks. We must insist that our images not be exploited or left open to the random violence and fantasies of an indifferent and/or confused viewer. Context matters, history matters, and memory matters. We must insist that our words are not dismissed, that the intents with which we produced our images is not marginalized, and that our images do not become merely ‘illustrations’ but are clear statements of our work and our beliefs.

Our words anchor the image, and give it something that itself does not contain; meaning and intent. The caption is crucial because it is also the photographer’s insistence on controlling the use the image is put to, and to what extent it can be manipulated. In a world overrun with meaningless illustrations, the caption takes on even greater value. Context becomes a powerful weapon against propaganda and obfuscation. And a means towards clarity and understanding. We should not surrender or relinquish this right easily. In a conflict mired in millions of words of propaganda, from both sides of course but certainly largely from the mouths of the powerful who have an unbalanced access to mainstream print, internet, and tv media, the words of those who have witnessed first hand are paramount.

Epilogue: A few days ago a Swedish magazine invited me to publish my portraiture from Gaza in its pages. A highly respected publication, it offered me the choice to submit as many images as I liked, with just one condition – they would not use the words that accompanied the work. They only wanted the pictures. You can see this work, images with words, as it appeared in a recent issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review. I refused to let them publish the work, arguing that erasing the words reduced them to meaningless aesthetics, and silenced the voices of the individuals who sacrificed their time and patience in the most horrifying of conditions so that I may carry to the world their sufferings. As photographers we either forget, or prevented from being complete individuals; thinking, creative individuals with opinions, ideas and realizations. We must defend this completeness, and the sanctity of our individual experiences, understandings and conclusions.

Update: The No Captions Needed site, authored by two professors, one from Indiana University and the other from Northwestern University and described by them as ‘…a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society.” also discussed the ‘no caption’ approach at this exhibit which you can read here: Visual Ironies

Personal Note: This post was edited to ensure that it is understood that it does not claim that the curator(s) intended to oppress the voices or remove context, but simply that the current format inadvertently ends up doing that. This is a criticism of the format, not of the individuals involved, all of whom I am more than sure have the most determined and committed intentions to raise awareness of the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.