Tag Archive: afghanistan

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. Read on »

Worth a look: Razistan

Razistan screenshot - photo by Jonte Wentzel

Razistan screenshot - photo by Jonte Wentzel

“There is much more to the war than the mainstream media has shown. The purpose of Razistan — or “land of secrets” — is to reveal these untold stories.” -about Razistan

Razistan is a newish Tumblr site devoted to telling original stories from Afghanistan. Founded by a host of acclaimed photographers, writers, and editors (Pieter Ten Hoopen, Sandra Calligaro, Javier Manzano, Fardin Waezi, among others) the group aims to keep attention focused on Afghanistan now the the US’s, the world’s, and the media’s eyes have moved on. There’s a kickstarter funding campaign (72% funded as of this writing). It’s always an ambitious project to fight against the prevailing media of the moment, but Razistan is well under way. There’s a great deal of compelling imagery on their Tumblr site already, and the success of their kickstarter campaign will allow them to do more exhibitions, publications, workshops for local journalists, and more.

By the way, I found this via Tumblr Storyboard, which is Tumblr’s in-house editorial effort to showcase what’s happening on Tumblr. Storyboard has a short interview with Razistan co-founder and publisher Marcos Barbery about the impetus behind the project.

Worth a look again: Paula Lerner’s “Behind the Veil: An Intimate Into the Lives of Kandahar’s Women”

Paula Lerner‘s death last week came as a shock. At 52, Lerner succumbed to breast cancer, leaving behind a legacy of strong photojournalism and long-reaching influence throughout the photojournalism community. Working with the photography business advocacy group Editorial Photographers, Lerner helped negotiate magazine contracts that paved the way toward fair pay and copyright protections for freelancers. With the non-profit Bpeace, she helped startups in conflict areas provide local jobs as a means toward reaching peace. I never met Lerner, but knew many who did. She was a strong force in photojournalism–we’ve all benefited from her efforts to guide the business of photography–and she will be missed.

One of her most significant achievements is Behind the Veil: An Intimate Into the Lives of Kandahar’s Women, a look at the lives of women in Afghanistan. The work earned Lerner and the rest of the reporting team at the Globe and Mail an Emmy. Vital and in-depth, it addresses an issue that’s frustratingly under-reported and treats its subjects with dignity and humanity. We need more photojournalism like this. Spend a few minutes watching (or re-watching) Behind the Veil.

Basetrack: The Book

Teru Kuwayama has posted to Lightstalkers a pdf version of what will become a printed book of the Basetrack project. We previously wrote about the media experiment and its sudden end on dvafoto. Great to see more images from the project beyond what was published on their website. We’re looking forward to seeing the final version in hand, which will likely be great and something new from the looks of it.

Dutch Embedded Journalist Fights Alongside US Soldiers

I came across this very strange story about a Dutch documentary filmmaker embedded with US Special Forces who, when his video camera died, decided to pick up a rifle instead and fight alongside the soldiers. The video report here is very thin, a lot of the story feels like it is missing, but it is potentially a unique twist for embedded journalism. I can’t recall ever hearing about another case of this happening, and I know tons of folks will react negatively to this in a heartbeat.

The filmmaker is Vic Franke and the documentary is called On Killing: The Aftermath. He says of the project,

This documentary portrays the private lives of two US Special Forces operators in Afghanistan as well as in the privacy of their homes stateside.

Filmmaker Vik Franke experienced all of this, while making “09:11 Zulu“, a documentary on the Dutch and US special Forces in Afghanistan. Riding with them in the desert for two months, hunting for the Taliban, he even had to pick up a gun himself in a huge ambush. The impact of the experience on his own life and having become of the ‘Fraternity Born in the Smoke of Danger & Death’ was enough to look up the only guys that he could talk to about it.

After looking at his website, the trailers for his films and the way he describes the work (including in this video piece), it appears to me that he seems quite eager to join the fight as a bit of a thrill. It comes off very inappropriate and rather offensive, and from what I’ve seen with these examples it really calls in to question the point of his films. Can you ever pick up a gun and still call yourself a documentary filmmaker? Can we take this work seriously? And what the hell does the US military have to say about such a thing?

(via War is Boring. Video report by Een Vandaag, Radio Netherlands Worldwide)

Support João Silva: Print Sale

Photojournalist João Silva was wounded while on assignment in Afghanistan in October. A group of friends and colleagues have set up a site to help raise money for Silva’s recovery. The site features a number of his well known images and vintage work prints for sale. Consider donating.

Worth a look: Trevor Paglen’s Limit-Telephotography examining top secret US military activity

Morning Commute (Gold Coast Terminal) - Las Vegas, NV - Distance ~ 1 mile - 6:26 a.m.

Morning Commute (Gold Coast Terminal) - Las Vegas, NV - Distance ~ 1 mile - 6:26 a.m.

Trevor Paglen‘s work on the hidden aspects the American military is well worth a look. Peeking into the hidden corners of the American military, his work previously has focused on the patches worn by top secret military units (available as a book, as well), code names used by secret agents, CIA black sites, and signatures found on documents used during “extraordinary rendition”. His new work, Limit-Telephotography, focuses on top secret military facilities that are located in some of the most remote areas of the United States. Using astronomy equipment, Paglen is able to take photographs from miles away, giving the images a hazy quality that speaks volumes about just how little we know about the top secret and confidential American government operations. Be sure not to miss the accounts of Paglen’s trips to photograph these sites, too.

Required supplemental reading: the Washington Post’s two-year long investigation into Top Secret America.

(via The Spinning Head)

Rolling Stone reporter Afghan embed approval rescinded


“There is no right to embed,” Lapan said. “It is a choice made between units and individual reporters, and a key element of an embed is having trust that the individuals are going to abide by the ground rules. So in that instance the command in Afghanistan decided there wasn’t the trust requisite and denied this request.” -DOD spokesman Colonel David Lapan


Mother Jones has good coverage of recent developments in Mike Hastings coverage of the war in Afghanistan. The Rolling Stone reporter, previously in the news for his explosive story on General Stanley McChrystal, had been approved for an embed to report from Afghanistan, but as he announced on twitter, it has been unapproved.

Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo coming to theaters in summer 2010

Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger - Restrepo

Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger - Restrepo

Restrepo, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s documentary about one American platoon fighting in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, has been picked up for distribution and will be shown in theaters starting in summer 2010. The movie’s website has information on screenings, and the trailer is available to watch online.

Interview: Jeremy M. Lange – The War at Home

I first met Jeremy M. Lange at a lecture we were both attending at ICP in 2006. We’d corresponded by email before, and he somehow recognized me in the crowd. I left New York later that year, and shared my last meal in the city with him. He continued freelancing in the city for a while before moving to North Carolina, producing along the way a strong and varied body of work, ranging from (legal) kidnappers for hire to Mexican presidential politics to barbershops to religious faith. His recent project, “The War At Home” is a wide-ranging piece covering the Iraq and Afghanistan wars from the perspective of those in the US. Do yourself a favor, and spend some time on his site. I asked Lange if he’d be willing to share his perspective on “The War at Home” over email. The discussion is below:

dvafoto: First, for our readers who might not be familiar with your work, where are you based and what publication do you work for? What sort of time on the job do you have to work on personal projects? How open is your publication to your story pitches?

Jeremy M. Lange: I am based in Durham, North Carolina, my hometown, which I returned to in 2007 after 3 years of school, 6 months in Mexico, and 3.5 years in New York City. I have a slightly odd arrangement in that I am a staff, or contract photographer, for the Independent Weekly, an alt weekly that covers the Research Triangle area of NC. I work 6 months a year guaranteed for them, one month on, one month off, and freelance the other 6, but I am able to take freelance jobs for all 12 months of the year, provided that I have all my responsibilities taken care of for the paper on the months I am on. The Indy is great in many ways, but especially in that me and the other photographer have almost complete artistic freedom in how we shoot the stories we are assigned and we get a little more time to invest in denser stories because it is a weekly. Deadlines do build up, but we have the ability to work our schedules out as we please as long as everything is done on time. Also, we can pitch stories at will and with a good argument, they tend to run them, as long as the story fits into the general guidelines of the paper, news, social justice, culture, it is pretty broad. Personal projects are much more easily blended into the paper than in others I have heard of. It can still be hard to find the time, and money, for personal projects, but that is always the case it seems. I think it falls more on you to make that time than anything else.

As a freelancer, I work a lot for the New York Times, who I have been working with since I lived in NYC and ran around for the Metro section, RIP, several days a week. They were the first real paper I worked for and have been great to me over the last few years. Thanks.

Other than that, I fill out my schedule with other editorial jobs, band shoots, portraits, whatever comes down the pipe. I think in smaller markets we are all forced to generalize a bit, but it is fun in that I learn new things from shooting different types of stories all the time. My background is in news and documentary, but I really enjoy shooting just about anything, with a few exceptions. Challenges keep you on your toes and I like the idea of photographing James Taylor one day and Christmas tree farms the next.

What got you started on “War at Home”? When did you know you were on to a bigger story with so many different threads to follow?

I met a soldier named Kristian Hofeller when I lived in Bushwick, Brooklyn in 2006. A package was misdelivered to my apartment and I rode up the street to drop it off at the right house and while speaking to the lady who answered the door, she mentioned that her son had just gotten back from Iraq. I asked if he might want to talk to me about it and take some photos, and I gave her my number and he called me couple of days later. We met at his house and drank some coffee and talked a little but he seemed sort of uncomfortable in his mom’s house so we went out to his truck and he basically broke down the last 5 years of his life to me. 1st responder to the WTC, off to Afghanistan, got in some trouble there, back home, marital problems, divorce, back to Iraq, back home… it blew my mind. He must have talked for over an hour with me just sitting in his truck listening and saying nothing really, I mean what the hell did I know about that? He got in some legal trouble while back in the US and therefore could not get a job, or at least a decent one, so he was considering going back to the military fulltime, he was on Reserve, or with a private contractor. They, the contractors, were offering him big money, he came from a blue collar family, but he did not really want to go. He had lost his wife and friends because of the war, but he really had no other options. We smoked and sat in the truck and he talked and then I went home, saying we would get together soon and shoot some photos. I had no idea what to do with what he told me, so I wrote down as much as I could remember, this is why an art degree can be a disadvantage, I should have taken notes, but I got it down for the most part, I like to listen.

We met again a couple of weeks later and went all the way out in Long Island to shoot some guns with an Army buddy and an older guy from his neighborhood. He would not really let me make any photos of him, but I got a shot of an Osama bin Laden target in a sand pit that has stuck around through all the edits, as well as one of his truck with a backwards “American Hero” emblem in the windshield. So I shot some really cool guns and we talked a lot, Kristian, me and his Army buddy, and then they took me home. We never talked again, he did not return my calls after that, not sure why, but I heard he went back to Iraq not long after. It stuck with me but I was trying to hustle in NYC and that was it for a while.

Not long after I got back to NC I shot a NYT story about a private contractor killed in Iraq, Brent Gray. We went to the grave with his wife and sister and some friends and then to a bar where we met some other guys who had served with him. I was so interested in what they were talking about and how little I knew about it. This is 5 or 6 years after we invaded Afghanistan and 3 after Iraq and I knew next to nothing about what people here were going through. I am not from a military family, but I have always been interested in it, the guns, the adventure and was about one stamp away from Marine basic training after high school. So I started looking around to find stories related to returning soldiers and other aspects of the war’s affects on the country and realized I had a huge pile of ideas.

Your “War at Home” project is pretty far-reaching. What ties it all together? What’s it about?
Read on »