ExperimentalExperience

Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

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.

Lebanon’s Missing: Photographer Dalia Khamissy Reveals What We Largely Don’t Want To Be Bothered About

In Journalism, Our Wars on January 19, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Dalia Khamissy, in collaboration with Benjamin Chesterton of DuckRabbit, has produced a fine film on the story of the thousands who went missing in Lebanon’s civil war. There is also a podcast where you can listen to Dhalia talk about the work .

Sticking Our Head In The Sand Or We Just Liked Afghanistan Better When The Soviet’s Were Raping It

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Our Wars, Photography, The Daily Discussion on December 29, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Larry Towell is looking for money for a new project in Afghanistan and has placed his request on Kickstarter. This would all have been fine had it not been for the fact that he is doing the wrong project.

Larry Towell has been an inspiration, one of the first photographers whose works compelled me to come to photography. So it is with great disappointment that I read his description of what he intends to do in Afghanistan.

The opening sentence from his project description, a project called Crisis In Afghanistan, left me stunned:

For 30 years, Afghanistan has known only civil war.

No it has not. For the last ten years at least it has known a brutal, violent, devastating, and illegal American military occupation and war. For the last ten years it has known torture, tens of thousands of civilian deaths, the installation of a corrupt and illegal political administration, torture centers and sites, drone warfare, a flourishing drug trade, a venal political and international aid agency class and a dismemberment of any and all civil administration that may have once existed.

This is not a crisis it is an American war and an American military occupation, one that is using an unpopular, illegitimate and corrupt local elite to maintain a facade of a ‘political administration’.

For the last ten years Afghanistan has known American violence and venality. If we were outraged at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan then it is sheer hypocrisy to accept our pillaging and occupation of Afghanistan today. It is unbelievable the ease with which we, citizens of a democratic republic, have adopted the lies and obfuscations of our governments, and the obsequiousness with which we have become collaborators and apologists for its misguided military adventures and violence.

I find it shocking that we cannot admit or accept that we are occupiers and collaborators in a hideous military and political adventure in the country and today principally responsible for the daily horrors, violence, bloodshed, brutality, criminality and venality that infests it. I find it laughable that we will not accept that today we are ‘the Evil Empire’, a place that once the Soviet’s held. I am dismayed, angered even, that photographers of Larry Towell’s intelligence and courage must resort to an outdated language, to bygone military adventures and histories and skip past the most current and pressing pathology plaguing the nation of Afghanistan.

How long are we going to pretend that we do not have anything to do with Afghanistan’s current devastation, mutilation, corruption, and mass dispossession? How many more embedded perspective do we need to keep ourselves from accepting what we are doing there, and how we are seen there?

Here is Larry telling us what he will cover in his project;

…landmine victims, male and female drug addicts, political detainees in Puli-Charki prison, ex-Russian soldiers, and veterans.

My goodness, what temerity to ask for funds for a project that offers nothing new, and for subjects that have been done to death. To say nothing about the fact that they say nothing of the current reality and horrors plaguing the country.

Russian soldiers? Pul-i-Charki prison?

Larry, what about drone attack victims, illegal detainees at Bagram, those tortured and left mentally deranged, what about the millions living in refugee camps displaced by American and NATO military operations, or the families whose men have disappeared into prisons and never heard from again, what about the families of those killed by the dozens each month because of our bombs and our indiscriminate aerial strikes?

I feel that such projects and their associated language are selling us a time machine, one that takes us to an Afghanistan horror story more palatable, more acceptable to our gentle American sensibilities. We want to hear about the errors from another period, when our participation in Afghanistan was heroic, moral and based on a rhetoric of freedom and liberation. Yes, the days back when the Islamic fundamentalists were labeled ‘freedom fighters’, invited to dine at the White House, and we could not stop having ourselves photographed with. The same people who today we have had to re-cast as ‘the bad guys’, but were once our allies, and the recipients of billions of dollars of American tax-payers money. All for an imagined great war of liberation, the one we all rushed to cover and then to garland ourselves with later.

This need to fly past our modern-day pathologies and back towards a period of imagined righteousness was also on display during the recent International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award ceremony where the photographer Reza was handed ICP’s highest award for his work in Afghnistan covering the Soviet invasion and its aftermath.

Did any in that room full of luminaries and glitterati feel any irony when Reza opened his acceptance speech with the following words:

“Once upon a time there was an unequal battle; that of a giant and murderous Empire, which was trying all the way to subdue a defenceless but rebellious people who had repelled all foreign invasions.

Once upon a time there was the Russian Empire against Afghanistan. It was thirty years ago. As a young photojournalist, I was covering that unequal conflict and the resistance of a handful of men led by Commander Massoud. Russian fire was heavy, with helicopters, tanks, bombers, leaving no relief and little chance of escaping certain death. The massacred people was suffering. The resistance Afghan fought for the freedom of their country.

Did anyone in that grand ballroom feel a tinge of anxiety when Reza said:

Empires, tyrants and their desire of conquest are but little things in front of passing Time and the will of a people marching towards freedom.

Did anyone notice the irony and the hypocrisy of an American institution handing out awards to a photographer who once covered an illegal military occupation of Afghanistan when at that very moment America’s own military is mired in an illegal military occupation of that very same country? I doubt it. We prefer not to be bothered by such niceties for it ruins the flavor of the champagne.

(Aside: I take nothing away from Reza who has also been an inspiration to me. His work from Afghanistan remains unique and reflects his passion and dedication to the story and the situation back in the 1970s and 1980s. My comments reflect my disappointment with ICP and an American cultural space that wants to contribute towards obfuscations to help hide the fact that we are and remain at war and as oppressors of another people.)

I have written extensively about the situation in Afghanistan in a number of earlier posts. Most recently in response to the cynical and hypocritical exploitation of Afghani women by Time Magazine (and later by National Geographic Magazine as well). But you can ignore my blather if you wish and at least listen to those doing independent i.e un-embedded work in the country and understand what is going on there.

There is Jeremy Scahill who has been featured on this blog a few times, most recently in a piece called What It Looks Like When  You Leave The Embed Or Thank Goodness Some Remember The Basics. You can listen to Scahill here:

Jeremy Scahill Talks About Afghanistan

There is also Nir Rosen, a freelance journalist and scholar, who had done some remarkable reporting from the regions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Aftermath By Nir Rosen

You can listen to Rosen talk with Amy Goodman about the situation in Afghanistan here

Nir Rosen On Democracy Now

In an interview with Salon’s Glenn Greenwald Rosen makes specific reference to the issue of how our elites (cultural, creative, artistic, intellectual, political etc.) represent our wars. As Glenn Greenwald points out:

…there is between how American elites talk about our wars and the reality of those wars and the things that you actually see by being there and in an unembedded function, and there’s this interesting speech that I’ve written about a few times by Ashleigh Banfield, who at the time was an MSNBC war reporter who was sort of the rising star of the MSNBC and NBC news and she was relatively new to covering wars, and she had come back from Iraq and she gave this speech at Kansas State University and she talked about the huge disparity between how television conveys wars to the American people and the reality of wars and all the things that embedding does in terms of distortions and this sliver of reality that ends up being conveyed.

The attitude, the distance we have maintained from those we today oppress are clearly discussed by Rosen as well when he points out that:

And I too often also found that Americans keep on going back to the same books, the same orientalist books which are used to justify empire, that Arabs only understand force, they are tribal, they are Bedouin. I’ve seen very little progress actually in the Americans’ ability to grasp the cultures in the Muslim world and they refer to a handful of academics who are far outside the mainstream of academics trying to understand the Middle East of Afghanistan, but who have been used to justify various wars and occupations.

So they still will talk about tribal societies and Bedouin societies as if they are some kind of cultural secrets, and if you just unlock these secrets, if it’s Pashtunwali in Afghanistan or Islamic code or Bedouin code, or Koranic society—you heard these weird terms often—if you just unlock these codes, you can understand the people and manipulate them and control them…you often hear American soldiers talking about if you, as if it’s the Sopranos…as if the primary motivator for people fighting occupation is money and not what it really is, issues of dignity, of freedom, of nationalism, of ideology. It’s almost as if Americans aren’t able to understand those concepts and they think that Taliban are fighting for $10 a day.

But I guess if the Americans were able to understand that, then that would make us seem like we were the bad guys, and we don’t want to feel like we’re the bad guys, we don’t want to feel like we’re the British in Braveheart fighting locals who are nationalists and freedom fighters. So I guess we have to try to understand their motives as being more financial whereas in reality I think they’re much more deeply ideological and nationalistic.

Indeed, it is perhaps impossible to raise funds on Kickstarter if you simple argue that you want to produce a project that explores and documents the horrors of the American occupation and a people’s resistance to it. I suppose it’s not palatable to present your work as documenting the new Empire and its oppressions. And herein lies another issue with these ‘alternative’ models of funding.

There has been a rather naive celebration of crowd sourced journalism projects and how it may be the solution to journalism and photojournalism’s woes. Perhaps another round of desperate attempts to avoid facing the economic realities of mainstream journalism, driven as they are by profit over reporting. When I hear a new crowd sourcing venture argue that the allure and sexiness of photojournalism will be a major selling angle, something pointed out in a piece called Photojournalism Site Emphas.is Wants To Leverage The Crowd Through The Romanticism Of Its Craft, I begin to wonder where we are heading. I quote from the piece above:

Photojournalists, particularly war photographers, have a certain allure, one Ben Khelifa hopes is the basis for a business model. “We have a romanticism around our profession,” he says. “We realized that our work isn’t the end product, but how we got to it. This is what we expect to monetize.”

Are you serious? Do photojournalists really think like this? Not only is a very specious argument for a business model but it is a terrible place to arrive as a person and a professional.

However, there is a larger concern as demonstrated by Larry Towell’s proposal where, a photographer who I am sure knows well what is really going on in Afghanistan, has chosen to ‘soften’ his words to appeal to ‘the market’. Perhaps, though I will never know. Crowd sourcing requires that we adopt a populist angle to a project, it may force reporters and photographers to avoid self-critical and uncomfortable subjects and demand that we pitch our stories for the widest sell rather than for the deepest truths. It’s not inevitable, but it is likely. I will add that outlets like Kickstarter and Emphas.is may in fact be best suited for highly controversial, critical projects as audiences look to find photographers and reporters taking risks to tell the stories our mainstream media is too constrained to tell. It could be that Larry Towell is missing an opportunity here!

I want to support Larry’s work. His has been a very important career for my own. But I find myself unable to do so as the project stands at the moment. For no other reason than the fact that such obfuscations and veils continue to eat away at the body politic and society of my country. America is weaker for not confronting her government and its pathologically misguided adventures. Our wars are weakening us, and making us more insecure. They are also destroying the liberties that we enjoy as citizens and increasing the intrusive and oppressive presence of the intelligence and security apparatus into our lives. As an American citizen of Muslim background – the only facet about my identity that seems to matter to people these days and the one that colors and overwhelms whatever else I am and have worked to become as an individual, I am already completely vulnerable to powers of the state with little or no recourse to her avenues of justice and rights.

The greatest danger of a military occupation is that inevitably the paranoia fueled security-oriented political and administrative decision-making procedures required to sustain an occupation eventually come home and undermine and weaken the occupier’s political system. Andif that political system is a participatory democracy, the consequences are even more devastating. You can’t claim liberty at home and repression abroad because the decisions to maintain the repression abroad are eventually made and sanctioned by the same political and bureaucratic individuals and institutions that sanction the horizons of liberty at home. The values that inform the occupation inevitably begin to inform the liberties as the divide between the ‘there’ and the ‘here’ become blurred and danger lurk all around and every thing becomes a source of fear and worry. The French have seen this from their experience in Algeria, the Israelis from their occupation of the Palestinian Territories, the Indians fromin Kashmir and now in the Eastern provinces and there are many more examples.

If not for the Afghanis, then for ourselves we have to adopt an honest and clear language about what is happening in our wars, and what we are doing out ‘there’. A project to tell the story of what we have done in Afghanistan, and the devastation and inhumanity we are facilitating, is a must and I would support it with all that I can afford to.

The Singular Experience Or What Photojournalism Can Be As Discovered In A New Pakistan Literary Review Journal

In Background Materials, Essays Related To Pakistan, Journalism, Photography, Readings, The Daily Discussion on December 28, 2010 at 3:36 pm

I think…[y]ou can’t write about Pakistan and get to Pakistanis – it has to be the other way around. Pakistan must be approached as Pakistanis, through Pakistanis, through singular experiences, through the stories we tell ourselves. We need these stories, even if they are never written down and exist only in words over coffee or just in our heads. These are the stories that get us through the day, through the “situation,” through the concept.

Hasan Altaf, Lifes Too Short vs. Granta December 2010

My dismay with the state of current photojournalism has been repeatedly expressed here on this blog. In a number of pieces on photographer and photojournalism I have called for photographers to step away from cliches and conventions and look to produce new stories based on a fresh, creative, new set of thoughts and ideas. Some of my perspectives can be found in pieces like How To Take Photos Of Africa Or Where Intent And Ideas Collide, and Staying Faithful To The Totality Of Experience Or New Frontiers In Photography. There are longer discussions with colleagues in pieces like To See Or Hear An Haitian Once The Party Has Died Down or even the long-winded What Ails Photojournalism Part I & Part II & Part III & Part IV (Hey, I said it was long-winded!!)

For the most part these essays are self questioning discussions, as much dialogues with myself as they are discussions with peers.

Much of this dismay has been inspired by the dismally limited ways in which the country of Pakistan (where I was born and raised before leaving for the USA in 1984) has been documented and represented by the dozens of photographers and photojournalists who have worked here. Particularly since the terrible events of September 11th 2001, the representation of Pakistan has largely become trapped in angles driver by vast geo-political themes like the ‘war against terror’, the ‘hunt for Al-Qaeda’ and ‘the rise of the Taliban’. Too often and too frequently the approach taken by photographers is to concentrate on the large narratives about the country, imbuing their work that focuses on the specific, from the perspective of their all-encompassing themes to help ‘reveal’ and/or explain the country.  I have always felt this to be a terribly limiting way of working in the country and have personally attempted to cut past them and get to something more unique, something more personal.

I was reminded of this struggle to find a different way of speaking of and documenting the country by a piece written by Hasan Altaf where he reviews two literary anthologies based on writing by Pakistani writers. Altaf examines and compares the Pakistan issue of Granta Magazine (I mentioned it here on this blog some weeks ago) and a recently published Pakistan literary journal Life’s Too Short that also featured works from Pakistani writers albeit of a different pedigree and status. The review, titled Lifes Too Short vs. Granta offered some lovely insights into ways in which we need to today document and speak about Pakistan – a nation that seems to be constantly teetering on the brink of disaster and yet somehow manages to muddle its way to another tomorrow. Altaf very quickly sees the main different between these two journal’s attempt to grapple with the idea of Pakistan, and Pakistani writing:

It would be oversimplifying to say that the difference between the two is that of macro and micro, capital-H History and ordinary stories. It’s more likely that the collections simply reflect their different intentions. Granta is geared to the “international market,” which in this context means, I imagine, the Western market, and that market has certain expectations from Pakistani writing. The Life’s Too Short anthology will probably not be read as much, outside of the country, and so does not have to meet those expectations.

But the main jist of his argument is the fact that he finds the works in the smaller, lesser known journal to in fact be the way forward. Admitting that the nation is beset with serious, encompassing and geo-politically relevant problems, he nevertheless reminds us that:

I don’t see how anyone writing about Pakistan now, writing anything, could fail to at least indirectly touch on the current [broader] situation; it would be like writing about Atlanta in the 1800s and never mentioning slavery, writing about Europe in the 1940s without even hinting at a war. This is our environment, now; violence is part of the fabric of our lives, more so than it was before. But a story made up of beards and bombs, with perhaps an honor killing every now and then for spice, would be an uninteresting polemic with little to say about reality. It would be writing directly to an expectation, giving some readers exactly what they want and expect – and if that’s all it does, then what would be the point of writing?

People confront the current situation every day, but in small ways; the war may be general, but the battles are specific. A father whose son is disappeared; a child whose mosque is suicide-bombed or drone attacked into oblivion; a woman trying to drive across a dysfunctional city; even someone waiting for hours and hours for their lights to come back on – these are the battles, the small, individual ways in which Pakistanis live Pakistan. In some pieces in the Life’s Too Short anthology, the situation lurks like this, as background noise, part of the set – but never the star.

The stress must now clearly be on the particular, the singular. The possibly exciting work is to understand and reveal how, given the broader pathologies infecting the nation, individuals find ways – ways that require courage, determination, creativity, patience, and faith, to navigate past them.

This insight applies not just to writers, but also to photographers. I earlier wrote a piece lamenting the limited exploration of Pakistan by the dozens of foreign photographers and hundreds of local photographers who work in the country at any one time. I had already stated in an earlier post:

I have written frequently enough about the rather shoddy and limited engagement most photographers and photojournalists have had with this nation. Here in the pages of this magazine [Granta's Pakistan issue] a few of Pakistan’s young writers, artists and poets offer a vision of the country, its people and their lives that are determinedly missing from the world of photography and photojournalism. The contrast cannot be sharper and I can’t think of many other nations where the divide between how it is represented by ‘the outsider’ and how it is expressed the ‘the locals’ is greater. I have yet to meet a major photographer or photojournalists who can actually name an important Pakistani writer.

It is Hasan’s insight that then helps fill the gap – that what is missing is the commitment to the particular, the willingness to engage with the specific. Most photographers have shied away from engaging in the lives and existence of ordinary Pakistanis to help us not just understand the struggles of the nation, but also the perspectives of its citizens. Tens of thousands of photographs later we are still documenting the nation from an aggregate level, still surfing the surface of its society, still refusing to listen to its people, still rejecting the gravity and seriousness of their lives, aspirations, dreams, opinions and sorrows.

I believe that this is the insight that compelled Indian photographer Dyanita Singh to spend thirteen years on a story of Myself Mona Ahmed – the singular over the general

Dayanita Singh Myself Mona Ahmed

I had already called out Alexandra Fazzina’s work in the country as a rare example of a photographer attempting to get to the particular. I also recently met the unique and individual Malcolm Hutcheson who has given nearly fifteen years of his life and photographic interest to Pakistan to produce some unique work from the country.

Copyright Malcolm Hutcheson

Both are outsiders prepared to go inside, and both remain unique in their focus and approach and both seem determined to not allow the grand themes from distracting them from their stories. There is an engagement here that stems from curiosity, humility and just plain excitement of discovery.

So much of what is produced these days seems pre-fabricated to serve simplistic editorial/sensationalism agendas either perceived or manufactured by the photographer him/herself. There are presumptions made – and of course these are enforced by editors no doubt, but nevertheless the individual photographer is ultimately responsible, for how a region, a people, and a topic should be visually documented. There are presumptions about ‘must have’ images, and areas of documentation, that today just seem to be being produced from preconceived templates.

But photographers like Hutcheson remind us that not everyone is buying into the hype, and that some still retain an individual capacity of thought, creativity and engagement. More importantly, that some are confident enough to argue their perspective and have themselves be noticed and their voices heard ´Hutcheson was short-listed for the Prix Pictet in 2008.

I can’t help but stress the goldmine of photographic possibilities that is Pakistan. It’s a goldmine that few are bothering to examine and explore. I have argued in the past that this probably has a lot to do with the fact that most who come here know little about it as a country – they are poorly aware of her history, literature, arts, culture, and society. They arrive with pre-fab agendas and pre-fab publication goals, and leave with cookie-cutter photographs which eventually sell because we know that horror and blood does sell but it never says anything interesting or insightful about the country.

This I am aware is a challenge I face myself as a photographer working in Pakistan – I too have been part of the caravan of sensationalism and I too have frequently seen the nation in the grand themes while avoiding its singular ones. But at this moment in time something is changing, and new work is emerging, where the singular, the particular, the Pakistanis who can help us see Pakistan are beginning to appear on my negatives. I am taking this journey, attempting to cross the intellectual, cultural, class and moral divides that have kept me from the people of the country. The challenge I face is one I hope others will too. Perhaps there is an element of laziness in these repeated calls for a better Pakistani photography – a hope that someone will produce a work so stark and real that I will finally understand how it should be done. Until then, my own limited attempts will have to suffice.

Hollywood And War Or How The Silver Screen Is Also An Obfuscating Veil

In Background Materials, Journalism, Our Wars, The Daily Discussion on December 24, 2010 at 3:57 pm

The program does not go far enough, to be honest, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a news channel taking on the question

This of course is a subject well covered in some interesting books. The few come immediately to mind and that I consider interesting because they examination of the close collaboration between the United States arms of warfare and the United States arms of entertainment to sell a specific angle and perspective on the conflict the nation may be engaged in.

The most recent war sold has of course has been the ‘war against terror’ and the speed and energy with which Hollywood (and here I include television productions) has trotted out venomous and evil ‘Muslim’ terrorists out to ‘nuke’ America, created fantasy scenarios that set up the necessity of using torture and the many lives that were later saved, the ease with which extra-judiciary killings, incarcerations, and brutality were justified through scripts bent on simplifying the world into ‘with us/with them’, and the powerful ways in which our invasions and occupations have been re-cast as conflicts without histories and without our agency.

But this is an old story, and it goes back to WWII as Koppes and Black explain in Hollywood Goes To War: How Politics, Profits and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies.

A work that looks at a more contemporary application of the same principles is Douglas Kellner’s Cinema Wars: Hollywood Film and Politics in the Bush-Cheney Era.

Then there is also Bogg’s Hollywood War Machine: US Militarism & Popular Culture. And so much more that helps us understand the reason we see what we see on the silver screen.

There are a lot of works that explore and highlight the close ties between those who produce mass media products like movies, television, mainstream newspapers, radio programs etc.

This is a broad, complex subject but in an age euphemistically known as ‘the information age’ our individual liberties and in fact our ability to defend or weakening democratic institutions depends on our understanding what we are told is ‘information’ and ‘news’, how this information is manufactured and sourced, how it is approved for distribution and dissemination, and how it is influenced. We are excited at the ease of access of information, but too many are too quick to grab the ‘corporate’ ease of an iPhone application, or the cable television news channels, or the laziness of the prime time evening news, and never bother to think about how all the information that is coming at them is prepared, packaged and presented.

There is no doubt that Hollywood films have been at the forefront of creating the popular beliefs that allow us to perpetuate war endlessly, and continue to silence as our public services and rights are erased while trillions continue to flow into the pockets of the military establishment and private corporate interests. popular assumptions about what is right, what is wrong, what is essential, what is compelled, are always manufactured assumptions. this is perhaps one of the oldest lessons of war and propaganda.

And while you are at it, this may also be a great time to return to Leni Reifenstahl’s Triump Of The Will to remember the original masters who conflated entertainment, and war, and helped close our minds while opening our will towards conquest and mayhem.

Seeing Europe Everywhere, Even In The Unfolding Of Another People’s Histories

In Book Responses, Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on December 9, 2010 at 5:55 pm

There are some issues where obfuscation and confusion are so prevalent, so pervasive, that we are unable to know what we are talking about any more. A recent example of such a situation is encapsulated and discussed in this new book by Gilbert Achcar called The Arabs & The Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War Of Narratives. There is a wide and popular set of writings that claims and insists that it is an inherent Arab anti-Semitism that informs the Arab resistance to the idea of Israel, and underpins the ongoing conflict there. That this Arab anti-Semitism is determined to destroy Israel and she is defending herself against this stain that aims to bring the holocaust back to the Jewish community.

There is little to argue against the fact that this narrative is largely believed, particularly in Europe and the USA, and strangely in full denial of the actual lived history and heritage of the Jews in the Middle East. Perhaps more egregiously, it is a narrative that takes a many centuries old European heritage of anti-Semitism, a heritage deeply ingrained in her society, literature, arts, and political (anyone remember Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice?) and simply foists its presumptions and history onto a new people where neither evidence nor experience suggests that anything of a similar depth and entrenchment ever occurred. However, challenging this has been difficult and many academics have continued to make this claim, and definitely many Israeli politicians and their supporters in the USA have repeated it ad nauseum – the Arab are anti-Semites and that is what is being fought in the wars in West Bank and Gaza, and that is what confronts Israel in Iran (ignoring the fact that nearly 30,000 Jews continue to live in Iran and are valued and crucial parts of its society and the nation!).

Now comes an essay in Dissent magazine called Anti-Semitism And Ignorance by Fredrik Meiton, a PhD student at NYU, as a review of Achcar’s book. It makes for interesting reading as Meiton challenges Achcar’s arguments and takes issues with specific incidents that Achcar outlines as in fact evidence of anti-Semitism. But throughout the essay this young man erases precisely what every Israeli or other politician, academic and intellectual with a strong pro-Israeli bent has done; the Nakba. Meiton wants to erase the broader political context of why Arabs, and let’s be specific – British Mandate Arabs were so supportive of the Nazis, and why the Nazis’ were so eager to foster collaboration with the British Mandate Arabs; it was calculated politics.

Meiton’s criticisms also represents a strange tendency of many to see all history as merely variations on European history – an Eurocentric pathology that insidiously and with alarming ignorance refuses to allow other people to have their own motivations, reasons, politics, calculations, judgements, designs and ideas. Meiton seems unable to allow for an Arab people to have an Arab-centric idea of resistance, opposition, ideas, politics, understanding of historical imperatives, and protection of cultural and social traditions.

We can’t avoid the fact that towards the end of WWI the Arabs of Palestine were confronted, thanks to the Balfour arrogance, a near absolute dispossession and dispersal. It was the Zionists, claiming to speak for all Jewery, who were going to be responsible for this dispossession. The very Zionists who happily conflated their Zionist political goals with Jewish spiritual and divine beliefs. This latter conflation of Israel with the entire Jewish community over the world was a political and rhetorical trick that Israel continues to use when it serves its purpose, but wants to scream ‘anti-Semitism’ against when criticism is aimed at its policies and practices. That is, on the one hand Israel says that Zionism is an all-Jewish movement, argues that anti-Zionists are anti-Jew and anti-Semitism, but then screams bloody murder if their opponents make the same connections by loudly accusing them of anti-Semitism! It’s a wonderful trick of language and reflects once again the powerful ways in which it can be manipulated to discredit your opponent. By conflating Israel with Jews, they can conflate criticism of and resistant to the Israel project with anti-Semitism. This is old news, but it was disappointing to read Meiton doing precisely this in his review; using this sleight of hand to build all his arguments in the review.

Meiton makes the same mistake; he can’t come around to acknowledge that the ‘heritage of anti-Semitism’ that he is talking about only dates to post- WWI, and has no historical trajectory to explain it. That is, all those who claim that the Arabs are inherently anti-semitic, begin their stories around 1918, unable as they are to find earlier traces, or even any consistent evidence of this in literature, politics, culture, poetry, art, politics, economics etc. They can’t find evidence because there isn’t any of a social pathology. What they find is a resistance and an opposition to the Jewish/Zionist/Israeli (take your pick!) project, and Meiton cannot accept that this resistance can be anything other than a social pathology.

That all the principal perpetrators of the so-called Arab anti-Semitism happen to be Palestinian Arabs, is ignored i.e. why would the Palestinians Arabs of British Mandate Palestine be opposed to the Jews and choose to collaborate with any power that was also opposed to the Jews? Well, because of what they knew was coming to Palestine – the colonization of their lands by tens of thousands, the dispossession and the displacement. It was a life and death moment. But Meiton can’t admit to this – he sees in incidences like a Nazi official being saluted by Arabs as evidence of anti-Semitism, rather than the evidence of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ and no more. Meiton also wants to finely slice “Jews” from “Israelis’ from ‘Zionists’, but this is disingenuous for after all Israel’s own leaders and pundits never do this; when it suits them, they assume any one of these costumes to serves their purposes. If Israel is criticised, it is anti-Semitism because Israel is for all Jew etc. Sometimes it feels like the 3-cup trick; guess which one the dice is under!

This review is a classic case of a double-bind most Israeli apologists find themselves in. By erasing history, and the torturous experiences of the lesser other, the Palestinian, they then proceed to try to construct a narrative that gives precedence of Europe and a European history. Unable to acknowledge the stories and equal validity of ‘the other’, they are confused at the persistent resistance and entrenched opposition of this lesser people. Why do they hate us – because of who we are, and never because of what we have done to them. I often wonder if this shuttered view is intentionally constructed, or a means to ease our guilt and avoid the horror of our actions. To now face the fact that we are murderers, rapists, thieves and pillagers, and that our fine civilization is intrinsically tied to this barbarism.

And equally, I would argue, on a different note, that such loose and frivolous attempts to equate European antisemitism with Arab nationalist resistance to the Zionist/Jewish colonial project, denigrates the insidiousness and sheer entrenched scale of Europe’s hatred of the Jew. It takes what is a genuine fact with a centuries old heritage (anyone remember the expulsion of the Jews from Cordoba?) and attempts to foist its burdens onto a small people, in a small part of the world, who in a moment of fear and desperation choose their friends poorly, but were certainly not the only ones to have done so. We must also remember that in India, anti-British nationalists also collaborated with the Nazis, and even with the Japanese – anything to oust the colonialists, anything to protect their lives and their liberties.

Speaking about the Nakba is a punishable crime in Israel. Why? Meiton never mentions the Nakba, nor admits to a genuine grievance of the Palestinian Arabs in pre-Israel times. He never offers a larger political, social and colonial understanding of the period  – not the history of the region, the colonial context of its emergence, and the specific problems and fears that underpinned their allegiance to the Nazis. Their history, their horrors, their sufferings, their worries, their resistance, their determination to hold on to what was going to stolen from them, do not count as relevant facts in this story. Tariq Ali reviewed the same book and began his review of Achcar’s book from the very place that Meiton refuses to:

It was not until after the first world war that relations between the communities began to deteriorate seriously. The reason for this was the Balfour declaration (opposed by Edwin Montagu, the only Jewish member of the British cabinet) that offered a homeland in Palestine to the Zionist Federation, without any consultations whatsoever with the people who lived on the land. Hitler and the judeocide of the second world war further cemented the foundations of the settler-state and led to the nakba for the Palestinian Arabs of the region. Hardly surprising that this led to the “war of narratives”

Where is this in Meiton’s account? As the Israeli/Jewish/Zionist (take your pick!) dispossession and occupation of the Palestinians as continued, as the Israeli/Jewish/Zionists wars in the region have continued unabated (Lebanon, attacks and occupation of Syrian and Syrian lands, attacks on Iraq, attacks on Egypt, attacks on Jordan) and as Israeli/Jewish/Zionist rhetoric of more war and greater war (Iraq, now Iran, who is next) underpins the presence of the state in the region, should it surprise us then that it is not uncommon or unexpected that Arabs will adopt a language of resistance and opposition that also uses the Israeli/Jewish/Zionist labels loosely and carelessly? Can Israel claim that is is the sanctuary of all Jews of the world, that being anti-Israel is being anti-semitic and then should ‘foul’ when in fact the people it confronts can’t tell the difference between what is anti-semitic and what is anti-colonialist or anti-Israeli nationalism?

Meiton is determined to point out Achcar’s flagrant use of ‘ignorance of the Arabs of broader political realities’ to explain what to Meiton’s eyes are clear acts of anti-Semitism, as for example when they allow a Nazi official to leave unhurt after he steps out of his car in the middle of a riot shouting ‘Heil Hitler!’ As Meiton argues.

This repeated use of ignorance as an explanatory—and exculpatory—factor is the book’s greatest flaw. Whenever Achcar encounters anti-Semitism alongside contradictory words or deeds, the former is automatically discounted. The presence of such contradictions, he assumes, proves that it is a matter of ignorance, and not of real anti-Semitism.

But why is it not ignorance and real anti-Semitism? Meiton never offers an argument to counter Achcar’s argument i.e. Meiton has no evidence that in fact it was nothing but political convenience rather than an entrench social pathology called anti-Semitism. Meiton does not need to; he relies on our European/American presumptions that this behavior, as echoed in European history, could only be anti-Semitism. If it looks like a goose, walks like a goose, sounds like a goose, it must be a goose!

But the ignorance is on Meiton’s side; by failing to point out or accept that the Arabs of British Mandate Palestine were in a full-scale rebellion against the machinations of the Zionists, and the tens of thousands of immigrants that were arriving, the violence / terrorism that was being conducted by the Irgun for example, he deceives the reader, and also himself.

An entire people’s experience and perspective is absolutely absent; a taboo of such stark proportions that it can’t even be elided to in the review, and the realities of the political and military acts taking place on the ground during the period this so-called Arab anti-Semitism raises it head, erased as explanatory factors.The erasures are too stark. And they are not just Meiton’s, but those of the editors of the magazine and the reviewers who allowed this piece to go through. For after all, none of them noticed what was left unsaid.

(Full disclosure: This is not a review in defense of Gilbery Achcar’s book. I have not read the book so am not in a position to judge its contents or its arguments. What I am responding to here are Meiton’s elisions and erasures as he challenges Achcar. This essay should not be read as an endorsement of Achcar’s work. Until further updates of course)

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.

 

All Muslims Are Terrorists And We All Know It’s True Because The TV Says So

In Essays Related To Pakistan, Journalism, The Daily Discussion on September 24, 2010 at 5:02 am

Nikolas D. Kristof is upset. The New York Times columnist is dismayed at ‘… how venomous and debased the discourse about Islam has become…’ More recently he even went so far as to offer a ‘collective’ apology on behalf of ‘us’ i.e. Americans to the ‘Islamic’ collective, saying that

I’m sickened when I hear such gentle souls lumped in with Qaeda terrorists, and when I hear the faith they hold sacred excoriated and mocked. To them and to others smeared, I apologize.

As always, Mr. Kristof has no sense of irony. Had he any he would have realized he is a columnist for a publication that has been consistently responsible for a shallow, narrow, derogatory, clichéd, sensationalist, reductive, and yes racist representation of Muslims and the broader Muslim world.

In fact, I find it odd that people are surprised that there is such vituperation, suspicion and hatred of things ‘Islamic’, Muslim and even Arabic in the United States of America. After all the simplistic representation of ‘Islam’, and its depiction as a violent, irrational, dangerous, terroristic, violent and deranged has a long and glorious history in our popular culture, media and mainstream press.

If we believe that ‘Islam’ is deranged, dangerous and a threat to ‘our way of life’, then we do so with good reason i.e. that is what we are told each and every day in most any newspaper we read, any television program we see and any movie we watch.

For example; some many months ago I did a quick review of The New York Times Sunday Magazine and its coverage of stories from the Muslim world. What I found was that every story that had anything to do with any Muslim nation was written from the perspective of ‘the war against terror’ or ‘Islamic terrorism. Every story. I wrote about this in a blog post called Only Interesting If Its Madness where even a quick and casual review of the magazine’s archive revealed a list of stories where the writer single-minded focused on the Muslim country from the point-of-view of ‘the war against terror’. Otherwise the country was simply not covered. For example, these were the stories I linked to:

“Next Gen Taliban”, January 2008

“The African Front”, December 2007

“Where Boys Grow Up To Be Jihadis”, November 2007

“A Dishonorable Affair”, September 2007

“Policing Terrorism”, July 2007

“Whose Iran?”, January 2007

“In The Land Of The Taliban”, October 2006

“Islam, Terror And The Second Nuclear Age”, October 2006

“Hizbollah’s Other War”, August 2006

“Iraq’s Jordanian Jihadis”, February 2006

“Islam On The Outskirts Of The Welfare State”, February 2006

“The Next Islamist Revolution”, January 2005

And this is a partial list, and I am working to bring it up to date. But you get the idea.

The newspaper, along with others like The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe or any number of major dailies, have obsessively, and narrowly covered and written about the Muslim world, about ‘Islam, and about matters Middle East nearly exclusively from the perspective of ‘terror’, ‘conflict’ and ‘violence’. Even magazines such as National Geographic have reverted to such narrow and sensationalist perspectives when reporting on countries like Pakistan, Yemen and others. We all know this, and we all experience it every day while sipping our overpriced lattes.

The New York Times is also one of a number of mainstream newspapers that has exclusively used the word ‘terrorist’ and ‘terror attack’ only in the instance that the perpetrators or accused have been of Muslim origin. Other attackers, other acts of ‘terror’ have been labeled differently by the New York Times, including when it covered the story of the overt terrorism intents of the Michigan militia where its writers was constantly referred to this terrorist organization as ‘right-wing militants’. In an another story about a disgruntled man who flew his private plane into an IRS offices, the same New York Times constantly refered to him as an amateur musician, a husband, a software engineer. Never as a ‘terrorist’.  My friend Elizabeth Herman touched on this very question in a post she wrote called the words we use: terrorist.

When Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist of Palestinian origin, opened fire on fellow soldiers in Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 and wounding 29, he is was immediately labelled a terrorist. In fact, not just him, but ‘respected’ columnists in otherwise ‘respected’ mainstream publications were able to come out and simply insist that ‘Muslims’ had a special penchant for irrational violence and that there should be a name for this ‘disease’. Tunku Varadarajan, writing in Forbes Magazine – yes, The Forbes Magazine (can you get more mainstream), penned a piece called Going Muslim where he explained that:

“Going postal” is a piquant American phrase that describes the phenomenon of violent rage in which a worker–archetypically a postal worker–”snaps” and guns down his colleagues.

As the enormity of the actions of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan sinks in, we must ask whether we are confronting a new phenomenon of violent rage, one we might dub–disconcertingly–”Going Muslim.” This phrase would describe the turn of events where a seemingly integrated Muslim-American–a friendly donut vendor in New York, say, or an officer in the U.S. Army at Fort Hood–discards his apparent integration into American society and elects to vindicate his religion in an act of messianic violence against his fellow Americans. This would appear to be what happened in the case of Maj. Hasan.

My personal views on this piece were expressed in a piece I wrote called ‘Going Muslim’ At Fort Hood Or How Rabid Simplicities Masquerading As Insight Just Sell More Magazines

And this is not unusual – a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal – that other publication of acceptable, respected opinion, written by Sadanand Dhume, titled India’s Groupthink On Islam extolled and celebrated the fact that the fantastically comic and supremely ahistorical Ayaan Hirsi Ali was present at the Jaipur Literary Festival, which meant that:

… Jaipur marked a small step toward the slow but inexorable knitting of India into the mainstream of global discourse on a sensitive subject. A clutch of books by Indian authors that take a critical look at Islam and Islamism are also contributing to this trend. It’s easier to start using a cell phone than to change a mindset, but over time Indian audiences are likely to begin demanding the same sophistication from their intellectuals that they do from their phone service providers.

That is, the presence of comic book intellectuals like Hirsi Ali, Tunku Varadarajan (of ‘Going Muslim’ fame), Max Rodenbeck, and Lawrence Wright (of The Looming Tower fame), India was coming around to the ‘modern’ understanding of the pathology that is ‘Islam’. Oh, he did lament that the Hindu right, the very same responsible for massive violence against India’s minorities Muslim, Christian or any other, only mistake was…

..its inability to distinguish between Islam as a religion and Islamism as an ideology, and its championing of causes important to the most orthodox Hindu believers shades into bigotry and religious chauvinism.

Notice that the brutally violent, murderous Hindutva movement, known for its orchestrated Gujarat pogroms and recently embroiled in a series of terrorism cases is spoken about in words like ‘shades’ and ‘religious chauvinism’.

We just speak about anything Muslim, anything ‘Islam’, with completely different words and phrases.

Hollywood, the most influential of American opinion makers, has a long and fabulous history of depicting Arabs, Muslims and ‘Islam’ in a purely violent, irrational and deranged light. Dr. Shaheen’s sadly funny Reel Bad Arabs chronicles this history well and is worth a read.  Or you can just see the video:

Every day, on every television screen across the nation – from our TV news channels to our entertainment channels, we are offered a view of anything ‘Islamic’ or Muslim from the perspective of ‘terrorism’, violence, paranoia, derangement. All Muslims are stereotypes – simple creatures with simple, binary responses to the world. In fact, even as Mr. Kristof of the New York Times attempts to paint himself into a ‘moral’ and ‘sensitive’ corner by offering pointless and useless apologies, he continues to indulge in this binary depiction when for example he states in his piece Is This America:

That kind of extremism undermines our democracy, risks violence and empowers jihadis.

Newsweek quoted a Taliban operative, Zabihullah, about opposition to the mosque near ground zero: “By preventing this mosque from being built, America is doing us a big favor. It’s providing us with more recruits, donations and popular support.” Mr. Zabihullah added, “The more mosques you stop, the more jihadis we will get.”

Mr Zabilluah is an illiterate and a propagandist. But he is not stupid. His infantile statement exploits an underlying bigotry that he knows pervades most Western thought: that anyone of a Muslim background can only choose life either as a flower child or a jihadi terrorist! And Mr. Kristol repeats this statement to offer the same argument; hey, be nice here because they will ‘turn’!

I find it incredible that reasonable people continue to speak as if anyone of Muslim background is nothing but a complete idiot who cannot make his/her own choices, weigh complex facts, arrive at judgements, evaluate his/her life’s conditions, and preserve her/her autonomy and ability to define and structure the nature of his/her life and make complex and multi-facet choices about life and living. These imagined Muslims  seem only be able to confront a bipolar reality, seem to be completely intellectually and emotionally maleable to jihadi groups and can only choose between ‘peace’ or ‘violence’.

In fact, it was precisely such simplistic, bigoted thinking that had almost every single newspaper and magazine running stories about how the catastrophic floods in Pakistan were not a human catastrophe as much as they were an opportunity for the Taliban to exploit the suffering of the people and orchestrate a return. This pathetic simplicity is so well accepted that even Pakistan’s mindless and retarded leaders were running around Western capitals with their begging bowls mouthing the same inanities – they knew it would elicit a lot of money from deep Western pockets!

In fact, the New York Times once again was at the forefront of this depiction in a piece called Hardline Islam Fills Void In Flooded Pakistan. Even The Lede had a number of stories on this very perspective. In fact, a whole host of publications followed up with the same story and it was the constant focus of most any and all foreign reporters I met in Pakistan while working there to cover the floods.

The way Muslims are spoken about today has a long history in our society and it dates back to our involvement and engagement with the Middle East – an engagement whose intellectual prejudices and perspectives we inherited from the British as they left the region, and her intellectuals, academics and political advisors joined our academic, political and polemical communities. A complicated story that I will not go into here. Edward Said discussed some of this in his work Covering Islam: How The Media And The Experts Determine How We See The Rest Of The World - the book was written well before 9/11.

But suffice it to say that we should not at all be surprised at how Muslims are depicted and considered in America today. Given all the sources from which we receive our information and our ‘truths’ it should come as no surprise.

These apologies, these ‘we are better than this’ righteousness is hypocritical and misleading. When Mr. Kristof says:

I hereby apologize to Muslims for the wave of bigotry and simple nuttiness that has lately been directed at you. The venom on the airwaves, equating Muslims with terrorists, should embarrass us more than you.

But there is dishonesty in this statement. His own newspaper has been at the forefront of perpetuating these equations and its journalists continue to do so from all across the globe. Perhaps a more serious apology would be in the form of a resignation from the paper, and a distancing from a publication that is very much involved in the creation of the ‘image’ of ‘Islam’ and Muslims that is now on display at Palin/Beck gatherings and other ‘nuttiness’ collectives.

They are not as ‘nutty’ or as ‘extreme’ as we would like to think.

Now where are my DVDs of ’24′?

UPDATE: A few days after writing this post I came a far more intelligent and interesting one that complemented the arguments that I made here. Garrett Baer of the Killing The Buddha penned a piece called Yes, Mr. Kristof, This Is America which argues, using a different but interesting set of historical and sociological arguments, that American bigotry has a history and it is our own. I quote:

We have to stop treating American bigotry as a series of exceptions—like silly season—and finally deal with it as a chronic condition. America, I have a diagnosis, and you do not look good. If it looks like racism, feels like racism, and sounds like racism, then I’m pretty sure that’s what it is. Let’s stop reacting with disbelief, as if someone pulled the multiculturalist rug out from beneath our feet, only for us to land on our surprised asses in an America we’d never seen before.

Its worth a read, and Killing The Buddha worth putting into your RSS readers.

Going Back To Go Forward Or Why A Book May Hold The Secret To A New Photographic Adventure

In Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Photography, The Daily Discussion, Writers on September 15, 2010 at 9:27 am

It was once quite fashionable amongst photojournalists to argue that ‘too much information’ about a situation, conflict, region, culture, society, subject or story could confuse and damage a photographic work. I remember at least a handful of interviews with ‘major’ photographers where they each claimed that they went into situations and stories such that they were not ‘influenced’ by readings and open to the experiences and inspirations from actual experience. I always felt that this was yet another weak attempt to veil what can only be described as intellectual laziness behind the obfuscating language of ‘the creative process’. It was quite obvious that the works being produced from complex socio-economic environments were riddled with simplicities, banal clichés and a frankly egregious and irresponsible disconnect from the broader social, political, economic and cultural factors that defined the nature of the ‘social pathology’ the photographers were focusing on.

All this is perhaps much too obvious to many. Yet photographers rarely quote books and research papers as the key source of influence of their work. And yet we are, as photographers, primarily if not exclusively, engaged in the process of expressing ideas, and depicting ideas through photographs. So I do find it odd that rarely do photojournalists or documentary photographers discuss the literary, non-fiction or poetic works that not only gave birth to a major photographic project, but that also defined the scope and nature of the work itself.

Just a random though this morning as I saw the latest issue of Grant Magazine which focuses on the nation of Pakistan.

Grant Magazine Issue 112

Grant Magazine Issue 112

I have written frequently enough about the rather shoddy and limited engagement most photographers and photojournalists have had with this nation. Here in the pages of this magazine a few of Pakistan’s young writers, artists and poets offer a vision of the country, its people and their lives that are determinedly missing from the world of photography and photojournalism. The contrast cannot be sharper and I can’t think of many other nations where the divide between how it is represented by ‘the outsider’ and how it is expressed the ‘the locals’ is greater. I have yet to meet a major photographer or photojournalists who can actually name an important Pakistani writer.

But ideas come from readings, and from an intellectual curiosity about a people and a culture. Perhaps part of the reason why so much of mainstream photography is so derivative and repetitive is because photographers prefer to mimic rather than explore. Perhaps there is a fear that a new idea, a new thought may have to be transformed into a new approach and a new eye. All this is not easy to do. But certainly there are regions which after so many decades of shallow and repetitive coverage could do well with a new approach and some new stories. In fact I have been quite pleased to see a photographer like Alixandra Fazzina attempting to do just this and immersing herself into Pakistani families and communities to try to return with a different angle on the lives and concerns of the people of this country. But I can’t think of any others.

New readings. New ideas. I think its time to get rid of this assumption that knowing more results in producing less.

A new project idea emerged after even a brief reading of Amitava Kumar’s A Foreigner Carrying In The Crook Of His Arm A Tiny Bomb. You go figure how that happened!

But ideas can come from many sources and if there is a dearth of new ideas and interesting works being produced today then perhaps it is because we are just not reading enough. This is of course not some highbrow arrogance at work here, but it would seem quite obvious to me that to explore issues in a new way we as photographers would turn to works, research, insights and creativity that can inspire our own. And it would allow us to stop repeating meaningless and ahistorical statements when confronted with the world we live in today and offer genuine insights and information about their reasons and possible solutions.

I think it was photographer  Jonas Bendikson who recently argued that with the advent of sophisticated digital cameras most anyone can make nice photographers and that the challenge now was to see who could come up with the best ideas. It seems to me that the ideas are all out there, but that the difference is going to be determined by who reads more.