Interview: Asim Rafiqui’s “Bagram: The Other Guantanamo”

Asim Rafiqui, Aftermath Project Grant winner and the writer behind The Spinning Head, has spent much of the last year photographing in Pakistan for his Justice in Pakistan project. Rafiqui was named an Open Society Fellow by the Open Society Foundation last year to embark on this major new work. Last week he debuted the first chapter of this project “Bagram: The Other Guantanamo” with an exhibition in Islamabad, Pakistan. He will also be presenting this work in Washington DC on September 12, 2013 at The Fridge Gallery. The project features portraits and interviews with family members of the nearly 40 Pakistani men still detained at the Bagram base in Afghanistan and is presented in a highly organized and internally referenced website that links the families, prisoners and their stories.

Rafiqui has generously agreed to answer some of my questions about his new project and share some of the images here on dvafoto.

“Nearly 40 Pakistani citizens remain indefinitely imprisoned at the Bagram Prison in Afghanistan without charge or trial. Denied the right to a legal defense these men have become victims of a cruel and unjust detention system with little or no hope for a fair trial or release. Some have been behind bars for over 11 years. Periodically allowed to speak to their immediate family members via Internet telephone calls, they are denied access to the outside world. They are isolated from the law, the media, and human rights organizations.” – About The Bagram Campaign, Justice Project Pakistan.

Dvafoto: What drew you to the idea of a large new project about Pakistan? 

Asim Rafiqui: I had been looking to do something in Pakistan for some time. I had also been looking to extend the work I had done in India – a work that explored colonial histories and their continuing impact on our modernity, into a new direction. With the War Against Terror tearing apart the fabric of so much of Pakistan, it was difficult to simply stay away. I had already begun work on a project on the victims of the War Against Terror in late 2011, and now, once the work in India had been completed, I realized that I had a chance to return to Pakistan and produce something new. Perhaps in the end I was most attracted to the idea of producing new stories from Pakistan, and doing so from the perspective of the individual Pakistani. This has rarely been done – we have become used to speaking of ourselves in the collective. Perhaps worse, we have become used to speaking of ourselves through borrowed narratives sold to us through the Western press and pundit who maintain an inexplicably powerful influence amongst the country’s political, bureaucratic and class elite. What that means is that there is a vast chasm between those who hold the power and the wealth in this country, and the tens of millions who hold all its burdens of existence. As Saadia Toor, author of the brilliant new book The State of Islam said:

…[the] liberal discourse reveals [a] profound dissociation from – and even a distaste of for – ordinary Pakistanis and their lives, hopes, dreams and struggles, reflected in the abandonment of mass political work. (page 199)

I see the same dissociation amongst our celebrated literati – most all of whom can only speak about the country through the prism of borrowed frameworks – the War Against Terror, globalization, Islamic radicalism and a whole host of dehumanizing, debilitating, distancing and degrading structures of thought and engagement that remove the individual Pakistan as a real subject, and replace her with victimhood, dependency, helplessness, and irrelevancy. My work in Pakistan will be built around 300 individual stories, each of which is meant to reveal the genuine struggles of the ordinary Pakistan and most importantly, provoke thought about the social and legal justice as it needs to be fought for and delivered.

How did this specific project about Justice in Pakistan come about? 

It always begins with a thought, and these thoughts always emerge during the process of a reading. The idea for a project on questions of justice in Pakistan came up during the summer of 2011 when I was living in Delhi, India. I was taking time off from my field work on the Idea of India project and had set aside a month to review a number of articles and books on South Asian colonial histories that I had been meaning to read but had been forced to set aside. It was during that summer that I noticed that I had collected into a pile a number of books that focused on the law and colonial history – I had been avoiding reading these sections because I had thought them irrelevant to my current work in India. But as I came back to them and started to go through them I thought that it was a theme worth exploring and something that may be a way to do something new from Pakistan. By coincidence a close friend had introduced me to Osama Siddique – a brilliant lawyer and professor in Lahore, Pakistan, who had written some remarkable papers on the continuing impact of colonial institutions, laws and practices on modern day Pakistani court and legal methods. And I was hooked. It took me a few months to work out the details and transform what were purely academic questions into a workable concept of a photo project. That phase I completed sitting in a small apartment in Queens, New York in early 2012.

What is your partnership with Justice Project Pakistan? 

There is no formal partnership as such. I am a Soros Fellow this year, and JPP is an OSI supported legal chamber. I was introduced to Sarah Belal, the director of JPP, when I arrived in Pakistan to start my justice project work. We both quickly realized that we share a deep commitment to the same questions of the rights of Pakistani citizens, and the objective of the law. What has emerged is a collaboration between two liked-minded individuals, both deeply naive and idealistic, but equally committed to speaking out on behalf of some of the most dehumanized, degraded and marginalized members of our society. Sarah was well aware of my ongoing work on the human cost of the American/Pakistani War Against Terror practices in the country that were / are tearing apart the lives of tens of thousands. And she approached me to see if I would be interested in doing something on the question of the Pakistani prisoners in Bagram. She and her team had already been working on a report about the situation of the Bagram prisoners, and I suggested that we broaden the focus on the work to include the lives and struggles of their families as well. We were soon able to transform a lunch conversation into a pilot project, and pitch the idea to funders, who, upon seeing the pilot website, were soon backing our work with the necessary funds. Our recently launched website (www.jpp.org.pk/bagram), and released report, and the various events and exhibitions we are holding in Pakistan, USA and the UK, are all a culmination of earliest discussions where we felt that we could do something new and more powerful by working together.

How long have you been photographing in Pakistan? 

For this project I have been photographing since October 2012. However, I have been working in Pakistan since 2002 and have produced a lot of work from the country. I don’t live here, and in fact have not lived here since 1984. But I do keep coming back and can find my way around. In fact, Pakistan was the first country I travelled to when I decided to become a photographer. The current justice project work will keep me engaged here for at least another 2 years, though I am also in the midst of working on a draft of my India book, and starting work on a new project in the Middle East.

Where have you been traveling to work on these pictures? 

There is really no specific travel agenda. I am going wherever I can find the stories. I am looking for individuals. So in many ways the physical and geographical dimensions are not so important this time. This is in sharp contrast to my work in India which was all about geography, sites, locations, and regions.

So far my work has taken me to the main urban centers – Pakistan as a very high rate of urbanization so this is not so unusual. The recent work trying to locate the families of the men in Bagram of course took me out into remote settlements along the Afghanistan – Baluchistan border regions, and deep into the slums of Karachi. But I also met some of them in legal offices, as for example when I was working with the victims of drone attacks. As I said, I am trying to find certain kinds of stories, and meet individuals with certain life experiences. The geography of the country becomes unimportant in some regards.

What is the process of identifying the prisoners and their families, and getting access to them? 

We began with the court files, and those that had decided to join the various litigation that JPP had filed on behalf of the families of the men imprisoned in Bagram. These were the families that were easiest to reach. When I say easiest I meant that they had at least had left a mobile phone number at the office. That is how I began. I took the entire list of numbers and started to make calls to people. Most of the numbers were out-of-date, and the others were never answered. Eventually we were able to put together a list of people who had at least agreed to meet with me, and then I started to travel out to meet them. To be honest I did not have the luxury of choosing whom to meet as I was dependent on not just being able to locate them, but then also on my being able to convince them to meet me, and to allow me to photograph them. Fear of the police, the intelligence services and the wrath of the Government runs deep in the psyche of the ordinary Pakistani. It is a well earned fear. People fear retribution from those in power should they speak out or even make themselves visible. Time and again I was asked where my work will be shown and used, and what dangers they were exposing themselves to if they allowed me to photograph them. Some families refused to collaborate and it often took a telephone call from Sarah or one of her other lawyers, to convince them of the importance of what we were trying to put together. The fact remains that JPP has developed deep and trusting relationships with some of the families, and I had to often rely on that trust to convince them to simply meet with me and to speak to me. Omran Belhadi, a young lawyer with JPP, was fundamental in helping me not only find families to speak to, but in convincing them to allow me to come and to photograph them.

What is your goal in showing this work in Pakistan? And does this differ than your goals for your exhibition and talks in Washington DC? 

Our goal is the same wherever we take it – we are arguing for the immediate access to a genuine, meaningful and complete judicial process and eventual release of the Pakistani prisoners who remain in Bagram. We repeat this message to the Pakistani government and are traveling to the USA to repeat it to anyone from the US government who will listen. It is not that complicated – these men have not been charged, and there is no evidence against them. They have been tried in kangaroo courts, but legal advisors who are in the pay of the US military, and in a court system that is stacked against getting to real answers, working from real evidence, and working towards real resolution. The entire system of justice that these men are subjected to is a farce, and frankly – to mirror back the words of a representative of the Department of Defense – reflects a deep lack of ‘intellectual rigor’. The fact remains that today Muslims in the USA, or elsewhere, are the victims of a cynical and clownish judicial process where crass cultural and racial bigotry masquerades as legal insight and intelligent vigilance. Men are assumed to be guilty at the weakest pretext, confronted with ‘secret’ evidence most of which has been obtained by paid informants and other collaborators with an interest in collaborating, and then condemned for decades of completely specious charges. It is all this that we are out there speaking against.

What is the format of your exhibition (i.e., does it feature text or audio clips of the interviews?), and how does it help tell this story? 

I don’t believe in the gallery exhibit. I personally find the gallery to be one of the worst ways to present and experience photography. For me a photograph is a very individual experience and must be confronted and engaged with in a forum and environment that encourages an individual contemplation and examination. It is one of the reasons I remain such a lover of the photograph as a print. Or a book. So the exhibitions we have done are largely to support something more than the exhibition itself. In the case of the Bagram work, the exhibitions are supplements to the release of the report that JPP has put together on the legal situation of the prisoners, and the actions that the government must take for their release. The exhibition is merely a way to attract a wider audience to this question and then get them to read the report, and understand the gravity of the issue. Furthermore, simply presenting large prints of individual Pakistanis is something different and unique. Again, as I have argued earlier, we lack a commitment and a love of the individual narrative and part of my efforts with this project is to force us to re-think about how we should be telling our stories, and where these stories should begin from. We have kept these exhibitions very simple – large 36×28″ prints in simple frames, and are primarily aimed at convincing people to go deeper by going to the campaign website, which is projected onto a screen at the gallery, and the research report itself. There are audio pieces on the website, but as yet we have avoided projected these – a bit too art-gallery for my taste!

The work in Pakistan is actually being shot with a book in mind – it is really the only way to finally grapple with it – in your hands, and as a contemplative individual experience. The exhibitions are fairly simple affairs, because I can’t really be bothered to do anything more with them. They do not even hold my interest. I love the subjects, and I have produced the portraits with great care and attention. I am working on documenting their stories and writing about their lives. But throughout all this I am constantly aware that it is the subject that is the focus, not all the attendant pomp and circumstance that photographers surround their works with. I do really believe that a quiet, determined concentration on writing and showing powerful stories is the greatest draw there is, and that eventually this work will stand not because of the glamour of an exhibition, or the sexiness of a website, but because of the questions it raises, the lives it reveals, and the realizations its provokes.

How does this project fit in with your previous work as a photographer? 

There is a continuity to my work from late 2008. I have been consistently exploring the legacies of colonialism and their continuing impact on South Asian intellectual, creative, political, economic and cultural thought and practice. From looking at the question of nationalism, to ideas of justice, I am consistently excavating institutional, intellectual and political legacies that can be traced to our [South Asian] failure to understand, confront, transform frameworks of thought they we inherited from our colonial history, and have mindless continued to replicate into our modernity. From nationalism, militarism, economic imagination to cultural aspirations, I am exploring the many different ways in which we are still very much trapped in a past not of our own making, and hurtling thoughtlessly towards a future that is not in our best interest. This is a thread that weaves all these projects together, and in fact, will be a very obvious one in my next one as well which will look at colonial and policing in the Middle East.

You can follow the whole project at The Bagram Prisoner Campaign’s website and find out more about Asim at his site asimrafiqui.com. We previously featured his project The Idea of India on dvafoto in 2010.

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