Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the start of the war in Bosnia. Cities, like people can produce strange feelings in visitors – leave tiny traces of discomfort and Sarajevo always struck me as being a little odd; a little schizophrenic… of course I never knew it before the war as a place of civility and culture. The work I made there was always conditioned by conflict but I thought I’d take this opportunity to show a small selection of work from the city taken almost a decade apart that show two different sides. The work from 1997 was made as I’d just returned from a near fatal trip to Sierra Leone and I came back to a landscape of a bitter and fragile winter. I remember the dark coffee and the sleet, the ominous surrounding mountains and the deep, jagged gouges in the buildings – and in the people. I photographed the Blind School, devastated by shelling but trying slowly to come back to life. I photographed children learning to use their canes on a path that the instructor, Borko swore was surrounded by unexploded ordnance. It made the children – and me – very diligent. A decade later I came again in better weather and better spirits with an old friend of mine from Delhi, the critic and writer Meenakshi Shedde to make a story on the Sarajevo Film Festival. Clearly, for me and the city, most of our visible scars had healed.
I’m coming late to this because I’ve been away but…
The Kony 2012 project is a film that ‘seeks to make Joseph Kony famous’ and in doing so, expose his deeds to a wider world. All very laudable but the entire thing makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. Certainly, exposure for such dreadful stories are generally to be welcomed however this enterprise bears all the hallmarks of an emotionally manipulative Hollywood fantasy that a crazed warlord just appeared from nowhere. I’m all for people changing the world but perhaps we might have prequel (I’m not sure that’s a word either) explaining exactly how something as awful as Kony came about. Perhaps we might talk about how Kony fits into the post-Amin world of Acholi politics (Kony’s early pronouncements on Museveni and his ‘Tutsi empire’); we might talk about disengagement in American Foreign policy in the nineties in Africa shaped in part by the New Barbarism thesis. We might talk about the allegation that the Ugandan security forces had an incentive to keep the war going to keep themselves in power. We might also talk about how the discovery of potentially billions of dollars worth of oil has made (especially) the US sit up and look at how the situation might be pacified.
Crucially we might try and work out why the film makers are doing this now when in fact the LRA aren’t currently operating in Northern Uganda. A cursory glance at the African and NGO press show that people who have worked in Northern Uganda on development and reconstruction are generally surprised; this story has moved on (and that’s not to deny the suffering involved). Not only that, they are arguing that efforts should be made to rebuild and that rather than these children being ‘invisible’, they are, certainly to people like Glenna Gordon (the author of the notorious and extraordinary photograph of Russel, Poole and Bailey holding weapons) and others who knows the situation, ‘pretty visible’. It is certainly true that this story was difficult to place in the mainstream media – although that didn’t stop a stream of Western photographers in the early 2000’s going and photographing the ‘night commuters’ as the children were called. In that respect the film certainly manages to circumvent traditional media outlets that wouldn’t want poor African kids getting in the way of their advertising. My point though is that if you want to defeat something, you have to understand it. And that is where this film, devoid of a good deal of context and seen through the distorting sentimental prism of a well meaning white film maker and his child (At 07:35 the white narrator says that ‘we are going to stop them’) falls down very badly indeed.
Something strikes me as deeply patronising in portraying this as a fight between good and evil. I spent a few years in Africa in the late 1990’s trying to make the point that the perpetrators of disgusting violence in the guise of child soldiers – were as much sinned against as sinning. An attempt – however flawed – to expose the mental landscape/legacy of exactly these situations of Post Colonial devastation that led to the rise of people like Kony and Taylor and Sankoh rushing in to fill a space that the State could not (or didn’t want to) hold.
I’m sad to relay to those people urging others to be ‘awesome’ and blindly support this campaign that if we blunder in, as well meaning as we might be, we might just make this situation worse. If a generation of American youth think that by capturing Kony and giving him up to the Hague, we can sort this out they are very much mistaken. Doesn’t that sound like the warnings that we were fed about the ‘madmen’ Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden? And didn’t that turn out well? Kony is clearly a product of the political situation in Post Independence Africa. You deal with that by dealing with the ramifications of poverty, politics and corruption. If you take away the justifications for Kony, you take away his legitimacy and his means of survival. And no, that isn’t as sexy and as easily reduceable to sound-bite length for the YouTube generation – but maybe that means the YouTube generation is the one that needs to remove itself from the tit of ‘info-tainment’ and decontextualised explanations. Ugandans aren’t stupid – they aren’t waiting for the White man to come and save them – they are, against very great odds trying to save themselves. They just need the tools to do that without people either exploiting their country or their situation.
This Saturday, July 2nd 2011 marks the 75th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War and events will be held at memorials all across the UK. This annual commemoration honours the 2,500 men and women from the British Isles who served in the International Brigades as soldiers or medics, of whom 526 were killed in Spain. They were among 35,000 volunteers from around the world who rallied to the Spanish Republic as it tried to put down the fascist-backed military revolt.
In the London ceremony on the South Bank, I believe that two surviving veterans plan to attend. They are David Lomon, who was captured with other members of the British Battalion during fighting in Aragón in the spring of 1938 and spent six months in the notorious prison camp of San Pedro de Cardeñas, near Burgos, and Thomas Watters, who served in the Madrid-based Scottish Ambulance Unit. I hope I can be there.
In 1996 I wrote and photographed a piece for the Independent Magazine about the veterans of that war.
Here are three images that I found from my archive.
Some of my images have been published in a new book on politics and photography called the Cruel Radiance by Susie Linfield.
In it, Linfield attempts to refute the argument that engagement with violent imagery makes the reader turn away. She argues that only by engaging with photojournalism and it’s unsettling commitment to documenting atrocity can we understand the world. It is an interesting time to take this line. Modern photojournalism has in the last few years, experienced a bleeding-into from the art world. I’ve written before about a cold un-connectedness that portrays people as butterflies under glass: a seeing that examines every facial detail but tells us nothing about context or the subject’s humaness. Linfield uses the example of Nachtwey, Peress and Capa in what I see as an unabashed attempt to reassert a traditional documentarian’s engaged position against the argument that all journalism of this kind is voyeuristic. Despite my work being included here, I do have reservations about documenting atrocity, but maybe the pendulum has swung far enough the other way: our sanitised, modern media tells us that only celebrity and money and excess are important. What happens over there is just not understandable. Linfield says that it is and it must be. Photojournalism is in need of a defender who can reclaim a moral relevance against Postmodern criticism that has done much to discredit the voracity of photography. We should not “drown in bathos or sentimentality,” Linfield says but “integrate emotion into the experience of looking.” We “can use emotion as an inspiration to analysis rather than foment an eternal war between the two.”
So, apparently, it was a “big inconvenience” for Naomi Campbell to appear before the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague yesterday… words fail me. Sometimes perhaps it’s just best to let people hang themselves by their own words: their own ignorance (“I’d never heard of Liberia…”) and their own selfishness. Of course it’s also a “little inconvenient” to have your arms/legs/noses/genitals hacked off with machetes by rebels financed by illegal diamond mining. But I digress… here are some more “inconveniences”…
So, for the second time in a few days I find myself writing about Pakistani militant attacks designed to destabilse religious harmony. On Thursday night, at least 42 people were killed and hundreds wounded when two suicide bombers attacked a the famous Data Ganj Baksh Sufi shrine in Lahore. The Lahore commissioner, Khusro Pervaiz, blamed the attack on a “conspiracy in which locals are being used” – a euphemism often used to point the finger at neighbouring India. A dangerous remark that even if true does nothing to answer the charge that Pakistan is actually at war with itself. The so-called Pakistani Taleban funded by Wahabi and other conservative sects (the same groups conveniently used by the Pakistani army in the 1990s to attack Indian troops in Kashmir) are the likely culprits for this and the recent attack on the Ahmadiyya community. Despite what fanatics in both Pakistan and the West would have us believe, the dominant tradition within Pakistani society is a tolerant, peaceful Sufistic based Islam. Wherever I have travelled within the Islamic world it is the presence of Sufis that has reassured me and added to my knowledge of religion. Sufism – a mystical, internalised form of Islamic worship that centres on love and prayer and charity seems to spring up to defend Islam when repression threatens. I have met many Sufis – often practising in secret – and my admiration of their practice is matched only by my hope that this will be the last outrage against all people who seek only to practice their religion peacefully as they see fit.
I’ve never worked in the Data Ganj Baksh shrine but here are some other images linked by ‘Sufism’ from my archive:
Some years ago I travelled to Pakistan to make a set of images about religious persecution. I lasted only a few days – for the first time in my career, I left a story because I honestly felt that my presence was putting lives at risk.
I had been invited to Rabwah, the spiritual home of the Ahmadiyya community, a peaceful minority Islamic movement that questions the finality of the Prophet Mohammed. Pakistan is the only country to classify Ahmadiyya’s as non-Muslims.
In 1984 General Zia issued Ordinace XX supposedly to prevent “anti-Islamic activities”. It forbids Ahmadiyya’s to call themselves Muslims, call their places of worship mosques and worship publicly. It forbids them from quoting from the Koran, preaching in public, seeking converts, or producing, publishing, and disseminating their religious materials. To gain a passport, all Pakistanis must declare themselves non-Ahmadiyyas.
The repression is of course a smokescreen to hide Pakistan’s myriad social and political problems and the Ahmaidiyyas are a perfect scapegoat. This is not about religion, it’s about state power. As Tariq Ali wrote in the London Review of Books in 2007:
“Back in the heart of Pakistan the most difficult and explosive issue remains social and economic inequality. This is not unrelated to the increase in the number of madrassas. If there were a half-decent state education system, poor families might not feel the need to hand over a son or daughter to the clerics in the hope that at least one child will be clothed, fed and educated. Were there even the semblance of a health system many would be saved from illnesses contracted as a result of fatigue and poverty. No government since 1947 has done much to reduce inequality”.
Ali Dayan Hassan of Human Rights Watch told the BBC the worshippers were “easy targets” for militant Sunni groups who consider the Ahmadis to be infidels. The Pakistani state is in trouble however and Ahmadiyyas are not the only minority to suffer persecution. According to Minority Rights, Baluchis, Hindus, Mohhajirs, Pushtuns, Sindhis and Christians all suffer.
Today, I read with interest an opinion piece in Dawn by Moshin Hamid (an author whose Moth Smoke I read and enjoyed some time ago) called Fear and Silence from which I take the liberty of quoting from at length. I think it elegantly echoes Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous (attributed) quote “First they came for the Jews…”. Hamid says:
“Because the heart of the issue isn’t whether Ahmadis are non-Muslims or not. The heart of the issue is whether Muslims can be silenced by fear.
Because if we can be silenced when it comes to Ahmadis, then we can be silenced when it comes to Shias, we can be silenced when it comes to women, we can be silenced when it comes to dress, we can be silenced when it comes to entertainment, and we can even be silenced when it comes to sitting by ourselves, alone in a room, afraid to think what we think.
That is the point. ”
One can only hope that all people of tolerance and faith will not be silenced.
As I was late in posting a Christmas message (I feel like the Queen…) I thought I’d better put something up as late as possible on the last day of 2009.
I seem to have lots of pictures of people dancing and partying across the world but when I thought about it, one image of hope and joy seemed to stick in my mind. The image below show a mother reunited with her son who had been kidnapped and forced to fight for Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army in Northern Uganda. He’d been in the bush for a couple of years as I remember and I was present in an airless, dusty hut when he was delivered home by the Ugandan Army. His mother, completely surprised by her son’s miraculous appearance (she thought him dead) was overcome with joy and started to pray just after I took this image. I’ve often wondered what happened to him.