Category Archive: discussion
It wouldn’t be February without debate and controversy surround the annual World Press Photo awards. In past years, the chattering classes (that includes us at dvafoto) have gone back and forth on the images or techniques given awards, this year questions have been raised about the voting process itself.
Looking through the year’s winners, I thought there wouldn’t be any debate; the categories this year were filled with strong work from many of the year’s major (and soon-to-be-major) news events. John Stanmeyer‘s winning image, one of my favorite pictures of the year, seemed like a subtle choice for the top award. It’s an image that regards marginalized people with a sense of humanity and dignity, rather than using people from the developing world as puppets for pity or handwringing. The subjects, with cell phones aloft, are people with families and histories and futures, trying to communicate in a situation beyond their control. The photo rises above the usual sex, drugs, and war tropes that dominate the major photojournalism contests.
The selection of this image has not escaped controversy. As duckrabbit first pointed out, John Stanmeyer (the winning photographer) and Gary Knight (World Press Photo jury chair) are business partners (full disclosure: I interned at VII in 2005-6). The photojournalism industry is a small one–though that can also be debated, especially if we look outside of the US and western Europe–and it’s inevitable that the judges of these major contests will know or have worked with the photographers whose work wins awards, since both tend to come from the upper echelons of the photojournalism industry. In this case, Knight and Stanmeyer’s ties are very close. In a World Press Photo video discussing the winning image (above), Knight says that he voted the story out of the competition, but the jury kept the image in the running for a single award. Speaking with the New York Times’ Lens Blog, Knight said that he tried to recuse himself from the jury when the image was considered, but that contest regulations did not allow that. Because of this, we must rely on trust that the award was reached in a fair manner. Even the appearance of unfairness in the judging process, however, undermines the award. If nothing else, there is now a strong reason for World Press Photo to amend their the contest rules and create a procedure for dealing with apparent conflicts of interest in the judging. Ironically, it was in a press release announcing Knight as jury chair that World Press Photo said they would alter the rules to increase transparency for examining digital files for ethical violations after the controversy over Paul Hansen’s winning image last year.
I’m not sure that Stanmeyer’s and Knights close ties are the largest issue here. Knight has said that looking at the images entered in the contest, the industry lacks resources to cover the year’s important issues, though he says that is not the case with the winning images. Furthermore, 8% of images chosen for the final round of judging had to be thrown out due to ethics violations. And only 14% of entrants to the contest were women (that number is under “Data on Entries” in David Campbell’s post as secretary of the jury). We’ve written before about sexism and gender bias in the photography industry, but this is a stark statistic.
By the way, here is a video of Gary Knight talking about some of the other winning entries:
There have been a number of responses to the awards and analyses posted online. Here are a few that I found most interesting (some linked above):
- World Press Jury secretary David Campbell’s World Press Photo 2014 contest: Reflections from the Secretary’s seat
- BagNewsNotes’ Thoughts on John Stanmeyer’s 2014 World Press Winning Photo
- Conscientious Redux’s 57th World Press Photo of the Year – A Few Thoughts
- Alessia Glaviano’s reflections as a member of the World Press Photo People category jury.
- Gary Knight’s conversation with the British Journal of Photography, in which he laments that the awards are dominated by a few large photo institutions.
- Susie Linfield’s thoughts that the awards this year reflect dignity and hope
- duckrabbit’s World Press Photo: great pics and the usual incest
- Paul Melcher’s Photojournalism is not a Competition
- Lens’ The World’s Best (Unaltered) Photos
- World Press Photo win is ‘bittersweet’, says John Tlumacki of his Boston Marathon bombing image
- Martijn Kleppe’s collection of discussion relating to World Press Photo 2013, for these links and more
A week or so ago I posted this photo from Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant on dvafoto.tumblr.com, but in retrospect we wanted to feature it on the main blog as well. It is an important demonstration of what press freedom and access to power is all about and the inherent hazards in allowing government entities (or any other group) to provide their own coverage. The images may emerge from a democratic government, but they really won’t look much different than the propaganda released from a dictatorship.
This is the essence of a debate that has been raging since the Fall about access to President Obama’s White House (and before that, honestly: Scott wrote about issues of photography in the White House days after Obama took office). Ron Fourniner’s article in The National Journal titled “Obama’s Image Machine: Monopolistic Propaganda Funded by You” has a thorough account of a meeting that took place on October 29 in the office of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. At that meeting New York Times photographer Doug Mills laid out the complaints of the White House Press Corp about access to the President’s activities, and likened the White House’s activities to the Soviet Union’s state-run news agency TASS, whose successor ITAR-TASS, and fellow state-run media RIA-Novosti, is more recently known for supplying famously heroic images of Vladimir Putin to the international media.
Doug Mills’ meeting with Jay Carney was followed up by a letter hand delivered to the White House on November 21st (PDF), signed by a number of prominent media and media advocacy organizations, including the National Press Photographers Association, The New York Times, The White House News Photographers Association, ABC, CNN, NBC, Getty Images and the Associated Press. The AP also issued their own statement about this issue. Santiago Lyon, AP Vice President and Director of Photography, answered questions on the AP’s own blog:
The photos on that page [The White House official Flickr page] are visual press releases and are carefully vetted by administration employees before distribution. Such images are increasingly offered to the media by the White House in lieu of real journalistic access and we and other media organizations find this unacceptable. Media organizations generally do not reproduce written press releases verbatim, so why should we settle for these official images?
Santiago Lyon also penned an op-ed for The New York Times on December 11, 2013: “Obama’s Orwellian Image Control”. If you are interested in this topic, it is a critical piece to read. He reiterates his point above:
The official photographs the White House hands out are but visual news releases. Taken by government employees (mostly former photojournalists), they are well composed, compelling and even intimate glimpses of presidential life. They also show the president in the best possible light, as you’d expect from an administration highly conscious of the power of the image at a time of instant sharing of photos and videos.
And he ends with strong and wise words:
Until the White House revisits its draconian restrictions on photojournalists’ access to the president, information-savvy citizens, too, would be wise to treat those handout photos for what they are: propaganda.
Part of this issue is the distinction between public and private events. Some editors and photographers are arguing that when the White House releases its own images from events on social media – such as Presidents Obama and Bush meeting on Air Force One en route to Nelson Mandela’s funeral, which was off-limits to the press corp pool also onboard the aircraft – they are demonstrating that the events are not private and are indeed newsworthy. BagNews’ discussion “As Press Battles WH Over Photo Access, Did Media Cross its Own Line Publishing Obama/Bush Mandela Trip Pictures?” provides many good examples of the difference between White House coverage of events and that of the free press, including the Obama/Bush pictures on Air Force One. Another post at BagNews, “Photo Ops and Staging: Beyond White House Access, the Larger Issue is What We Have Access To” by David Campbell, has more examples of the exclusive framing of events that the White House photographers have that they deny members of the press access to.
For more context, photographer David Hume Kennerly talks about his time in the White House in an interview with James Estrin of the New York Times’ Lens Blog. Time Magazine’s Lightbox blog also published an article by former White House photo editor Mike Davis: “The Backstory: Why Photographers Need More Access In The White House”.
Furthering their terrific studies of these issues, BagNews announced this week that the subject of their next salon would be The Debate over White House Photo Access. It will take place on February 9, 2014. I also want to thank Michael Shaw, Publisher of BagNews, for providing me with resources and his insight on this topic.
BagNews argues, rightly, that, “One thing we need are images that address the construction of the image, including pictures showing photographers in the photo, the set-up of the photo-op, or using particular visual strategies such as different angles, depth of field, and framing.” One important function of the press is to create transparency about how the political machine works. Being able to have an independent look at how events are set up and designed is critical in understanding what exactly the events mean.
Time magazine points this out in other ways too with another of Phil Bicker’s great edits of handout photos in a post called “Public Service or Propaganda? Top Handout Photos of 2013″. Bicker posts often on Time Lightbox under the title “Man on the Wire”, and we wrote about one of his post’s last year: “Déjà Vu in 2012″. In this post he shows off all manner of official photographs that have been published in the press.
Besides the White House, Kremlin and the North Korean official news agencies, other notable sources for handout photos include the NTSB (for photos of the crash of Asiana flight 214 in San Francisco and a train crash in New York), NASA (for photos of space research, manned space flight and an unfortunate picture of a flying frog during rocket launch), the Government Communication and Information System of South Africa for pictures of Nelson Mandela’s funeral, the U.S. Army for a photograph of Chelsea Manning.
I’ll finish this roundup with two examples of images that cross more obviously in to the sphere of possible-propaganda, images that look like they could be news photographs but are in fact handed out by political organizations: a photo of bodies of victims that Syrian rebels claim were killed in a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces in eastern Ghouta and a photograph that the Kenyan Government provided from the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi showing the collapsed roof of a parking garage.
BagNews also provides startling examples of powerful official imagery that has, in one way or another, been made available to the press. “Ready, Aim, Backfire: Police Photographer’s “Rolling Stone Retribution” Photos” examines the photographs of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev leaked by a Massachusetts State Police official photographer. This is an interesting example of how official photographs might actually undermine the official narrative; see BagNews for more on this argument. Another post, from January 6, 2014, “Even if the Police Report Wasn’t Buried by the Holiday, What Photo Would Make Us Understand Sandy Hook?” is a powerful anonymous essay about the police report and evidence photos taken by Connecticut State Police from their investigation into the Sandy Hook school shooting in December 2012. This post looks closely at the photographs, ponders their meaning (or lack thereof), and asks why they were buried in the Holiday news cycle and rarely published.
The prevalence of handout photos being published in news sources demonstrates the success organizations are having in shaping the narrative they prefer by controlling the photographs that are available of an event. This is something that we should all be aware of, and wary of. There are times and places – for example, the President’s private family dinners and on the launch pad during a rocket ignition – where restrictions on access are acceptable and logical. But so many other times, as clearly laid out in the photos and articles above, this power is being abused. And we the media and the people are right to resist this.
Photographer Adam Magyar, whose slit-camera photographs Scott wrote about in 2009, has a new project called Stainless. It is composed of both massive prints of subway cars and subway riders and innovative slow-motion videos of subway platforms as trains arrive at stations around the world. It is captivating work. And involved a tremendous amount of ingenuity and invention by Magyar to make it possible.
There have been a lot of articles about the work recently so do have a look: Matter has published a feature and interview with Magyar as Einstein’s Camera: How one renegade photographer is hacking the concept of time that I highly recommend. PetaPixel also published a piece about the Stainless videos and followed-up with a link to a fascinating video where Magyar speaks about the technology and code that he developed himself to make these projects work.
On January 1, the Spokesman-Review (of Spokane, Washington) published a video of the city’s annual Polar Bear Plunge. A portion of the video was taken with a remote-controlled helicopter. Though a small helicopter doesn’t match what most of have in our minds when we think of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), for legal purposes they are the same thing. News of the Spokesman-Review’s video spread widely after a few tweets, with some questioning the legality of using a UAV for journalism in the US. The Spokesman-Review photographer responsible for the video, Jesse Tinsley, said the use fell into a legal gray area. Poynter has a good review of the conversation and an interview with Tinsley. But on Monday, an FAA spokesperson said that there is no legal gray area regarding drone journalism. “If you’re using it for any sort of commercial purposes, including journalism, that’s not allowed,” the FAA told Poynter. In June of 2013, in fact, the FAA sent cease-and-desist letters to two American drone journalism university programs, the University of Missouri’s Missouri Drone Journalism Program and the University of Nebraska’s Drone Journalism Lab. Check out the Drone Journalism Lab’s tumblr, by the way.
RC copters with camera mounts are a growing industry. You can buy them at Amazon. DJI Innovations has a handful of other models available, too. As a result, drone journalism is taking off around the world, alongside other nonmilitary drone usage. Livestreaming Occupy WallStreet journalists used toy helicopters to gather aerial footage. Paparazzi have used drones in their celebrity coverage, leading to an anti-drone anti-paparazzi bill in California. Eric Cheng, formerly of Lytro, spoke with Popular Photography about using drones in his work. Even wedding photographers are getting into the mix, but sometimes with disastrous results (see the video below).
The use of drones in journalism (and everything else) will only increase. The Reuters Institute released a report in June 2013 on just this subject (pdf of report). In the report, they argue that newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters, will turn to drones because they vastly simplify and cheapen the process of collecting aerial photography. The Canadian Journalism Project has a good interview with Alexandra Gibb, a graduate student whose thesis addresses the use and future potential of drones in journalism. And Poynter has a nice set of links and discussion about what journalists need to know about drones, though that focuses more on the coverage of drone issues than use of drones by journalists.
Not everyone’s happy about the rise of drones. The ACLU warns about risks to privacy and safety caused by the increasing use of drones in domestic security issues. And one Colorado town made national news last year with a proposal to issue hunting licenses and bounties to shoot down drones in the town’s airspace.
And while the use of drones for commercial operations, including journalism, remains illegal in the US now, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 says that the FAA needs to allow drones and UAVs in American airspace by September 2015. To that end, the FAA has announced plans for six drone test sites around the country which will be used to determine how to integrate drones into the nation’s airspace by experimenting in varied locations and climates.
My mother recently sent me an interesting article in Vanity Fair magazine about Texas inventor Tim Jenison’s quest to prove that Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer used a camera obscura-based device to make his photorealistic paintings. Jenison’s experiments are the subject of a new documentary called Tim’s Vermeer produced and directed by the magicians Penn and Teller, which is now in limited release.
Tim Jenison, who had a career developing video editing and post-production software and hardware, endeavored to not only reproduce the apparatus he thinks Vermeer used – a camera obscura fitted with a handmade four-inch lens, a parabolic mirror and a smaller mirror to paint from – but to test his theory by painting a replica of The Music Lesson. This required building and sourcing a fully accurate set that mirrors the room in Delft, Netherlands that Vermeer depicted. The construction of the set in his San Antonio studio took over eight months and the painting took over 230 hours of work. It is worth noting that Jenison is an amateur painter, with no training prior to undertaking this project.
Jenison was inspired by earlier research that suggested that Vermeer might have used an optical device to assist in making his most famous paintings. The theories were based on analysis of the accurate depiction in Vermeer’s work of out of focus areas of the scene, the perfect reflections in a mirror and the proper display of the light values falling on the white wall in the painting The Music Lesson. These attributes of the paintings are claimed to not be possible without the assistance of an optical device, suggesting that the details Vermeer included in his work could not have been seen by the human eye alone or with the era’s understanding of the nature of light.
Other critics though are resisting these proposals, at least insomuch as they “oppose drastic devaluations of the role of art”, which Metropolitan Museum of Art curator of European paintings Walter Liedtke is quoted as saying in the Vanity Fair article. We’ll leave it to you to determine if these discoveries about how likely it was that Vermeer used new technology to create his art undermines the artistry and beauty of his work or if it strengthens his reputation as a master of the use of light.
I first heard about the death of Molhem Barakat in Syria by way of the above image posted to twitter on Dec. 21. Barakat was killed while covering fighting between rebels and loyalists over the Kindi Hospital in Aleppo, Syria. Covering Syria has been an especially dangerous endeavour for journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists, as of this writing, states that 55 journalists have been killed in the country since 1992, all in the past 3 years. However, Barakat’s death raises even more questions.
Many of the reports of Barakat’s death state that he was 17 years old. Reuters has not confirmed this, but nor has the media organization given any age. As usual, duckrabbit is on the case, with a large set of links surrounding Molhem Barakat. British journalist Hannah Lucinda Smith wrote a remembrance for the boy, whom she’d known over the past year. She first wrote about him in an interesting, and provocative, piece called “My friend, the aspiring suicide bomber.” When the boy couldn’t join an Al Qaeda-linked group in Syria, he turned to Reuters to freelance. He was accepted. His work was good, used to accompany articles by major media outlets. Buzzfeed has a collection of some of his most powerful work from the conflict.
But many have been asking just what a 17-year-old was doing working for one of the largest media organizations in one of the most dangerous conflicts in recent history, especially for journalists. NPR’s On the Media broadcast a tremendous piece last September called “The Freelancers’ War,” which lays out what coverage of Syria really means. Although some media organizations have banned the use of reporting from Syria by freelancers, the vast majority of reporting from the conflict remains the domain of freelancers. For some, it’s war tourism. Vice had a particularly telling piece in 2012 called “I went to Syria to learn how to be a journalist.” The freelancers face extreme danger without insurance, training, adequate gear, institutional backing, or even a plan for what to do when things go bad.
After the news of Barakat’s death, people have been wondering why the organization hired a 17-year-old to work in this danger. Corey Pein’s blog post covers the important issues, and includes an empty response from Reuters received by Stuart Hughes.
So the questions remain:
- Was Molhem Barakat 17 when working for Reuters?
- If so, why is a child working for one of the largest media organizations in the world?
- Why would a media organization hire someone who had previously tried to join Al Qaeda?
- Did Reuters provide the expensive camera gear to Barakat?
- What was the agreement between Reuters and the 17-year-old? Was he given safety equipment, training, insurance? What about assistance for his family?
- Does Reuters, or other news organization, regularly employ people under 18 when covering conflict? If not, why now?
Corey Pein has many more questions, all of which demand an answer.
It would seem that the biggest magazines with the most hiring power hire mostly male photographers. -Daniel Shea
In September, Daniel Shea provoked quite the conversation with a post on his tumblr called “On Sexism in Editorial Photography.” We reblogged the original post on our tumblr but due to travel and assignment work never got around to a roundup on the main blog here. One great result of the conversation is Women In Photo, which collects the online conversation about these issues and presents a list of American and international women photographers that any editor shouldn’t hesitate to hire for assignment work. It’s a work in progress, with a few names I like left out (Melissa Golden, Melissa Lyttle, Alixandra Fazzina, Vivian Sassen, Sandy Kim, Ariel Zambelich, Megan Spelman, Narelle Autio, Krisanne Johnson, Carolyn Drake, Nadia Shira Cohen, Sim Chi Yin, Anastasia Taylor Lind, Jessica Dimmock, Stephanie Sinclair, Lynsey Addario), but it’s a great resource so far.
Shea pointed out that the biggest magazines have mostly female editors and hire mostly male photographers and presented a few observations and thoughts about why this situations has arisen, none of which he claims to be exhaustive or anything more than his own experience: editors say they don’t know female photographers who fit their magazine’s style; men might be more aggressive in pursuing assignment work; collectives and loose organizations of photographers don’t do a good job of including women; men have an easier time assisting due to sexism and climbing the ranks that way. The whole post is worth a read. Another particularly troubling statistic that saw recently that likely has a profound affect: 64% of women journalists responding to a survey said they had experienced “intimidation, threats, or abuse” in the field or in the office. That study was conducted by the International Women’s Media Foundation.
Women In Photography also collects much of the rest of the conversation started by Shea and discussion about the conversation. There are responses by editors, photographers, and industry publications. Here’s a few I liked:
- Erin Patrice O’Brien had a great response stemming from a shoot with a mostly female crew which also includes a huuuuuggeee list of women photographers who are killing it (crossposted at APhotoEditor).
- Photo editor Jamie Goldenberg has a nice addition on the editing side of the conversation.
- Angie Smith took time to count the ratios of male photographers to women in issues from a bunch of magazines she had around, and the results were not good: 6:2, 9:1, 8:0, 11:3, 10:1, 12:0, 4:4, 8:1, 12:4, 5:4, 10:4.
- PDN has a nice roundup of thoughts on the issue.
- Also worth a read, Alexi Hobbs shares a short anecdote about how being mistaken for a woman caused an editor to contact him.
Firecracker does a great job finding and highlighting the work of European women photographers (featured on dvafoto previously), and offers an annual grant. There’s also the Women Photojournalists of Washington and their annual contest.
Buzzfeed also had a wonderful post a little while back: Women Are Covering The Hell Out Of The Syria War — So Why Haven’t You Noticed?
And check out the International Women’s Media Foundation.
While we’re on this subject, I imagine that we could have a very similar conversation about racial and ethnic diversity in the photo industry…
Maybe our own M. Scott Brauer, recently returned from a hunting trip in Montana, can give us some better advice than this guy, who just sort of hung out with an Elk while he was trying to take pictures. The video is awkward and asks a lot of questions.
Scott, did this guy do good? Should he have run away screaming? Or stood up and scared the Elk off? (Which was what I was rooting for). Or. better yet, gone for a close-up? Strange video.
“Is it curious, for example, why the military would censor every and any image of a wounded US soldier, the media colluding with the blackout, while at the same time, after a supposed terrorist attack on an American marathon race, domestic media would be scrambling to outdo each another to disseminate the most bloody images of mangle limbs? And then, would there be any reason why the images of the public massacre of pro-Morsi demonstrators by the Egyptian police a couple weeks back would earn only cursory display while the media seems so eager, these Syrian photos in hand, to open an artery?” -All that Syrian Decapitation in the Media Lately: The New Abnormal? (GRAPHIC) / BagNewsNotes
Yesterday Time’s LightBox blog posted photos of the execution by decapitation of an unknown man by unknown assailants in Syria, photographed by an unknown photographer. It’s a graphic gallery, but they are not the only recent troubling images of executions in Syria. Recent coverage in Paris Match and the New York Times have focused on brutal executions committed by both Syrian rebels and the Assad regime. BagNewsNotes offers a reading and interpretation of what these photos, and their recent publication, mean in relation to broader political conditions. The pictures and reporting linked here are important in our understanding of the current Syrian problem and how our leaders are acting. So too, BagNews’ analysis is worth a read.
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. Read on »